Do you ever have moments when you feel a strong impulse to share something with others and you just do it automatically? Maybe when you’re on vacation, in front of an amazing view? Or when you’re in a hip restaurant and you’re served a beautiful dish that tastes divine? When you read something interesting, and you have an “aha” moment of insight? When you hear a song that gives you goosebumps? Or when you hear a joke that makes you laugh so hard that tears are streaming down your face. If you're like me, you will probably feel a strong urge to share these moments with others.
Before going on holiday last month, I made a promise to myself that I would be more mindful of what I share online. I wanted to take less pictures, be more present in the moment and live the experience to the fullest, together with my family. But at the same time, I was curious to find out if by being more present, taking less pictures and sharing less, I would still remember all the details of my experiences. Was it possible to enjoy the holiday and remember it, without taking thousands of pictures?
My plan partially worked. I took less pictures than I normally do, and mostly with my phone. I only used my DSLR camera one time, to take a couple of pictures of the chubby French cows in the Pyrenees. But I found it hard to overcome the urge to take pictures. And when I still did, it was equally difficult to not want to share them with others. There were times when I even felt angry and frustrated when the upper left icon on my phone said no network connection.
So, I wanted to better understand what lies behind this trigger that most of us have and what we do with it, so it doesn’t start affecting our well-being and enjoyment of day-to-day experiences. Online sharing has become such a strong reflex for many of us, that we just take it for granted and we don’t even think about our intentions anymore. And the more often we do it, the more it becomes a habit.
So, where does this urge of sharing come from and does it make us happier?
Sharing is a human need
As humans, we have a natural urge to share our thoughts and feelings with other fellow humans. Researcher Erica J. Boothby has been studying how shared experiences influence people’s behaviors and the perceived level of enjoyment of those experiences. During one experiment, participants were given a piece of chocolate and they were asked to assess how much they enjoyed it. Some of the participants were doing the experiment alone, while the others were grouped in pairs of two. Can you guess which group enjoyed the chocolate more?
Sharing an experience with others, amplifies the emotions we feel, because experiences are more intense when shared.
This is true for both positive and negative emotions. When we are angry, we feel a momentarily relief if we can vent, but in reality, our negative emotions are amplified. We risk going into a downward spiral and find ourselves ruminating and getting even angrier. Emotions are triggers for sharing.
Emotional Intelligence Is a Skill
Most of the times, the reason why we do what we do is grounded in a need. We’re hungry, we eat; we’re tired, we go to sleep; we feel alone, we call a friend. These are needs that we can easily recognize and name. But not all needs and emotions are so obvious if we haven’t developed our emotional intelligence muscle. Sometimes I eat not because I’m hungry, but because I feel alone and I want to connect. The relation between food and connection is a mental script I have since childhood, when my mom was often cooking my favorite comfort food whenever I was down.
When we think about emotions, we often categorize them as positive or negative. The precision with which we can identify the exact emotion we are feeling, depends on how well we got to master this skill. There’s a difference between saying “I feel angry” and saying “I feel resentful” and there’s an entire spectrum of emotions derived from “feeling happy”. Increasing our vocabulary when it comes to emotions and being able to identify what we feel, it’s an important step in developing our emotional intelligence.
But emotions are not only positive or negative. They can also be categorized as high or low in physiological arousal.
When we give a presentation in front of an audience, we might feel our pulse racing, our palms sweating, our heart pounding in our chest and our muscles are tensed. That’s high physiological arousal. We have a visceral feeling in our body that we cannot ignore or control that easily. It’s human instinct. Arousal is a state of activation and readiness for action.
And that’s where the sharing happens.
We share when we experience an emotion that is so strong, that we literally feel it in our bodies. An amazing view that leaves us in awe and deeply connects us with nature. That dish that tastes so amazing that we savor it with all our senses. That song that gives us goosebumps. The joke that makes us laugh so hard that tears are streaming down our face. The pride we feel when we achieve something that was hard and took a long time.
When we share something that moves us, we are responding to several needs:
- We seek connection. We want to know that someone else feels what we feel, and we are not alone.
- We want to belong and feel accepted by others. That’s why we feel the need to share useful information that could help others.
- We want to feel worthy and important, so we share interesting stuff and achievements we are proud of. (even when that’s sometimes a homemade chocolate cake we share on Instagram)
- We want to contribute to a greater good, so we share causes we believe in.
- We just want to be happy and have fun, so we share funny quotes, memes and sometimes cat videos.
Sharing is not a bad thing, on the contrary, it can help us become more aware of our own drivers and better understand ourselves and our emotional triggers.
Learning how to recognize our needs and emotions and then choose a healthy way to express them, is key to our well-being.
When Sharing Doesn’t Help
I remember a scene that I was observing one time in a restaurant. Two friends who hadn’t seen each other for a long time, were sitting at a table across me. They seemed happy to reconnect and were enjoying each other’s company. They were talking and telling stories from the past months. The conversation was flowing, they were gesturing with their hands and laughing. After a few minutes, one of them took her phone out and placed it next to her, on the table. From that moment, the whole energy between them shifted. When the drinks came, the girl with the phone started to take pictures of her nice-looking cocktail glass and she was more focused on taking pictures than listening what the other was saying. Her friend stopped, but she replied immediately, ”No, no, go on, don’t mind me, I am listening.” Have you ever been that friend? I know I have.
When we are too focused on capturing what we experience on camera, with the intention to share it, this means we are paying more attention to the act of taking pictures than to the actual lived experience.
The paradox is that the human urge to capture and share, prevents us to enjoy the best part of an experience: the social connection. And it doesn’t only affect our experience, but others’ too.
The friend who constantly takes pictures while you’re talking, will not only miss the best parts of your story, but will also not make you feel very good. When we are paying attention to a small screen, we cannot pay attention to how the people around us are feeling.
Studies have shown that when we take pictures with the intention to share them with others, our enjoyment of that experience goes down significantly.
Understand your motives and intentions
A while ago, I came across an interesting idea called “the game of judgement”. Social scientists Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas study what they call dark horses, people who triumph against all odds, the winners nobody saw coming. By deconstructing the journey of dozens of dark horses who achieved fulfilment in life, they found out that their secret was discovering their unique individuality and micro-motives that drove them to action.
A simple, but not always easy way to discover our own micro-motives is to be mindful of what we feel when we are judging someone.
There are four steps in this process:
1. Become aware of the moments when you are judging someone.
2. Identify what you feel in that moment.
3. Ask yourself why you are experiencing that feeling.
4. Write these observations down and see if with time, you discover a pattern.
Imagine you are checking your Instagram and you see a friend sharing a picture from an exclusive event, with famous glamorous people in the background. You tell yourself “What a bunch of snobs who just waste money on parties”. In that second, your thought is less about them and more about you. You might be someone modest who appreciates simple things and is mindful about what she spends her money on. You are also someone who probably doesn’t appreciate parties and glamorous places, but finds joy in a quieter environment, or in nature. This is a great insight that can help us better understand what truly motivates us.
Judging others is often a good an opportunity to stop, reflect and learn something about ourselves.
Another good way to develop our awareness and better understand our triggers, is to keep a simple emotions log, like this one. This is a fun exercise to do because it will help us become more aware not only about how we feel, but also about what triggers us and motivates us to act.
One thing I noticed about myself is that whenever I see an interesting creative project that inspires me, the first impulse I feel is to share it with someone or save it in my inspiration folder. But if I stop for just a couple of seconds and ask myself why, most of the times I realize that not all projects that give a good first impressions, are also valuable. So what I do instead, is stay a bit longer with that initial feeling and dig deeper into the work of that particular artist, to understand her journey and creative process. This helps me learn something new and maybe apply some new ideas to my own creative process. If I still think it's worthwhile sharing, I do.
Sharing something too quickly, without understanding why, nurtures more distress, shallow behaviors and actions that will only distract us, rather than help us focus on what matters most to us.