Recently, I found myself obsessively searching for cushions. In my spare moments, when I could have been playing with my kids, talking to my husband, reading a book…anything else at all… I was discreetly picking up my phone and scrolling through endless websites looking for cushions. Two cushions, to be precise, in ‘blush’. For my bedroom. And specifically ‘blush’, mind you, not coral, or peach, but blush.
Never mind that I didn’t even know what ‘blush’ was a month ago. It came into my inbox from a well known shop, as one of the must have spring colours that I now somehow felt, yes I really must have in my home. Never mind that I used to be perfectly happy without any extra cushions on my bed and that, in fact, since I found those two blush cushions, I now have to spend my precious time taking them off the bed every evening and putting them back on again every morning. I just couldn’t settle until I knew my blush cushions were found.
And I’m not the only one. When I guiltily confessed my search to a friend, she told me that she’d given herself a blister on her thumb looking for a new lamp. Another friend has been getting into bed then staying awake for hours in the dark, looking at kitchen cabinets.
So what are we doing? Is this nesting gone mad? Oliver James, in his brilliant 2007 book ‘Affluenza’ spoke about this kind of consumerism as being behind the growing malaise of the middle classes – suggesting that we protect ourselves from the horrors of real life by buying stuff we don’t really need. In a generally comfortable life, advertisers create false needs that we feel compelled to fulfil – and when advertising is coming at us from every direction, in every website and magazine we read, on the streets we walk and in everything we watch – its easy to see how much these false needs infiltrate our daily life.
There are also so many more ways to be competitive now than there were in 2007. Our homes must be Instagram ready, our photos Facebook worthy and our appearance must be vloggable at all times. There are many more benchmarks by which to measure ourselves, and too often we find ourselves coming up short and turn to blush cushions to boost our self esteem.
And its not just about self esteem, its a little more than that. When we get a ‘like’ on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or the rest, our nucleus accumbens is activated – the little part of your brain which processes rewarding experiences like eating, having sex and doing drugs. And not only that, but our nucleus accumbens is highly involved in addictive behaviour – so that ‘like’ doesn’t just feel nice, it makes it much more likely you’ll check your phone again…and again…and again. And of course, we’re never just on Facebook, are we? We switch between Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, email, the news, and then back through the cycle – chasing those likes and sending our cortisol levels soaring as we go into high alert mode. And, if we’re doing all this at night, the blue light from our phones raise our cortisol levels even more. So, wanting to be connected makes us addicted, stressed and overwhelmed.
Of course, we’re beginning to see signs of a backlash. There’s a growing trend towards minimalism, and digital detoxes are all the rage. But, because of that pesky nucleus accumbens, the only way to really break the addiction is to stop the reward – to stop looking.
Another way, though, is to question why it is we actually find it rewarding in the first place. Why do we care so much? Partly it’s just social acceptance – we are by design social animals so cues that tell us we’re fitting in are, evolutionarily, worth attending to.
But it also makes me think about how what we do with our smartphones relates to how we parent. In our daily life, in this way, we highly prioritise external reward. We feel good when we get likes, we feel satisfied when someone shares our post, we feel settled when we get the blush cushions. And that’s often what we teach our children too, and what was taught to us.
How many of you were given a sticker as a kid for doing something ‘right’? Or put into time out or the naughty corner for doing something ‘wrong’? The psychologist Carol Dweck has spent her career examining the impact of such behavioural ‘training’ (and training is exactly what it is, derived as it is from the Pavlovian dogs) – and there is increasing evidence to show that teaching children to be motivated by external reward and punishment actually undermines their own motivation. In other words, when we’re rewarded for good behaviour, we stop doing the good behaviour when the rewards stop coming. Or, in the case of social media, we chase the likes so that the rewards can keep coming.
It’s made me wonder why it is that I’m much more likely to mindlessly scroll on my phone when I’m tired, when actually a bath and an early night is what I really need. It’s the same reason that, when we’re feeling rundown, we’re much more likely to reach for chocolate, or coffee – we need to get that reward system going. But instead of the external gratification of connecting on social media, we can think about what might meet our need for internal gratification. There have been so many amazing ideas to come out of the #howcanihelp campaign I’ve been running on Instagram with @thepsychologymum, many of which get our endorphins flowing like hugs with loved ones or getting our bodies moving. But what’s so striking about all the responses is that they’re so personal. What feels rewarding one day might feel like a strain the next. But one things for sure, blush cushions don’t quite cut it but a play fight with them just might….