It’s World Wellbeing Week. The Mental Health Foundation, a British charity, is promoting five ways to increase your wellbeing. These are: connect, get active, be mindful, keep learning, give time to others. Ground-breaking research in 2008 by a UK nonprofit suggested that minor changes in these five areas can help decrease mental health problems. Over the last 18 months, our wellbeing has been severely tested. In focusing on these five values, can we make things a little easier? 

Let’s look at learning in particular. Many of us have been working from home in recent months. We’ve had to learn to connect remotely, build virtual relationships and work in isolation. Anyone who was regularly using social media had some of these skills already. In fact, in the midst of challenging circumstances social media can offer a means of escape. That and ice-cream.

Social media – easier than ice-cream, just as appealing 

When you’re working from home, a shameless lurch towards the freezer is hard to justify. But social media is different. We’re already glued to our phones and laptops, it’s easy to hop across from work emails and messages to WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest. They’re easier to access than ice-cream, and just as appealing. 

But social media platforms can pose an unseen threat to our wellbeing. They provoke the fast-brain responses that Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman called ‘system 1’ thoughts in his acclaimed 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman described these thoughts as short cuts that let you do or say something without having to think about it, such as logging on to your laptop, opening an email or grabbing a coffee. 

These short cuts, known as heuristics, are performed with habitual ease. The brain doesn’t need to think about things. It saves time and energy by making a quick knee-jerk response, often copying past performance. Sometimes these short cuts are subconsciously overruled. Slower, more careful analysis keeps us safe. Deeper ‘system 2’ thoughts restrain impulse actions and manage complex things like conflict within a team or developing a new project. 

Psychological curveballs 

We’re at our best when the brain’s systems are in balance. Relying heavily on simplistic fast-brain short cuts can lead to psychological curveballs, such as magical thinking, cognitive biases, misattribution in memory and fallacious thinking. Thanks to system 2 thoughts, we think before we speak. Where would be without them? On social media usually.

We need a little time and space to think. But social media is designed to be addictive. It deliberately encourages fast responses, leading us to quickly say things, do things and buy things on impulse. This suits the advertisers who provide income to social media platforms – such as Facebook, which makes 99% of its revenue from advertising.

Social media is simple, fun, and an attractive distraction. But the more we are distracted, responding at speed, the less we think about our reaction. Consequently, the more we are open to vulnerabilities such as biases. These can lead us to struggle with the real world. And so we look for more distraction, in a vicious circle that can lead to anxiety, the fear of missing outlow self-esteem and poor decision-making. 

Learning to protect yourself

Social media has undoubted benefits. But there are advantages in learning to use it proportionately. According to research by communications expert Nick Smallman, there are two things we can learn to do that can soften its impact. 

The first is to ask more questions about comments we see on social media, regarding their accuracy, the motives behind them and the people who post them. This line of questioning interrupts short cut, system 1 reactions. It makes room for better understanding. This in turn helps us to shape slower, more informed responses. 

Secondly, broader understanding of material we see online leads to sharper awareness of things that are harder to see, such as flaws in the way we think. Biases are less likely to trip us up if we’re aware of them, question them and remain open-minded to the world beyond what they seem to suggest. 

We can’t remove human flaws. But we can become better at responding to them. In managing our reaction to social media, we can learn to reduce the influence of ‘fast-brain’ short cuts by amplifying ‘slow-brain’ processes. This in turn will strengthen self-esteem, decision-making and the ability to communicate. In the five values of wellbeing, learning to protect ourselves is a good place to start.