Economics For Your Mental Health?

I don't know why it popped up on my feed this morning, but I saw a link to two-year-old news that Instagram is the social medium that is supposedly "worst for mental health."

Of course, I have written before that I like Instagram much better than other social media, and I have surmised that one of the reasons for this is because I have curated my Instagram feed much differently than my other social media accounts. Rather than following friends and relatives on Instagram, I instead follow famous or interesting people who take photographs of things I want to see: beautiful places, cute animals, great acts of outdoor sporting, appealing fashion, and so on. If it tends to bring me joy when I see it, I'll follow it on Instagram. If it tends to upset or bore me, I won't. I don't spend a lot of time on Instagram, but whenever I use it, it gives me a smile.

The question is, why is my experience so at odds with that of the average person?

Recently, I have seen other reports about how fitness trackers make people miserable and impede their athletic progress. Meanwhile, regular readers will note that my experience with fitness trackers tends to be the exact opposite. I love them. I love Strava. I love seeing all that data, getting the kudos, seeing what kinds of workouts other people are doing, how their races went, and so on. It's wonderful.

In thinking about both of these things, I realized that there are really two different ways of seeing it.

Suppose you log on to Instagram and see a beautiful woman's photos of a beautiful life in a beautiful place, with loving friends and family, and fun happening all the time. One reaction you might have is to be happy for that woman. After all, there is a lot for her to be happy about. You could pay attention to the fun things she does and the nice photos she takes, and you could try to learn lessons to apply to your own life. Do you love all the photos she takes of the beach? Then maybe you should find more time to go to the beach. Do you love all the time she spends with her family? Then maybe you should spend more time with your family. Do you love how glamorous her photos are? Then maybe you and your friends could practice taking glamorous photos of each other. In small ways, you can learn from people who appear to be doing something right, and make your own life better at the margins. It's unlikely that you'll ever live the beautiful life of a social media influencer, but that shouldn't mean that you can't apply a few of their best successes to your own little world.

That's how I feel when I see these Instagram accounts. That's how I feel when I see people post their workouts on Strava. It encourages me, inspires me, and gives me something to learn from.

Other people, though, have another way of seeing it. To them, the fact that they'll never be able to live the glamorous life they see depicted on Instagram is a source of sadness. They want that life, they know they can't have it, and it makes them feel sad. They see someone on Strava logging 80 miles of running per week, and they lament that it can't be them. Or else, they become obsessive about logging an 80-mile week and end up hurting themselves. Anything good that they see on social media becomes a contrast to their own lives. That someone can live a fabulous life implies, in their minds, that their own lives are somehow less-worth-living.

One major difference between these two ways of seeing things is that the first way, my way, involves thinking at the margins: How can I make small changes to what I'm doing so that I can live a little better? The second way involves dichotomous thinking: My life isn't as good as theirs. Dichotomous thinking is pathological to a long list of psychological problems, most obviously depression. The more you see things as all-good or all-bad, the more any small bad thing will bother you, because it implies that everything is bad.

This makes me wonder: Do people who think at the margins - economists, and the like - fare better when it comes to their psychological wellbeing? Could it be that economic training could improve people's perspectives by training them to think less dichotomously?

I think it's worth investigating.

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