In James Harmon’s collection of letters published in his book Take My Advice, he includes a letter written by philosopher Martha Nussbaum. In her letter Nussbaum writes about our connection and dependence on others, and what we should focus on to build meaningful and successful lives. Nussbaum writes, “We are all going to encounter illness, loss, and aging, and we’re not well prepared for these inevitable events by a culture that directs us to think of externals only, and to measure ourselves in terms of our possessions of externals.” This quote reminds me of a topic that I have written about before in regards to social media. With our digital lives we spend a lot of time focusing on the lives of other people, and we compare ourselves to our friends and judge ourselves relative to what we see of others online.
I believe that Nussbaum would find our social media comparisons to be a dangerous thing for each individual because we will begin to judge ourselves based on the things we have in our lives relative to others. When we see people taking exciting trips, buying new things, or just being fully happy with some situation, we inevitably build a small block of envy towards others. On the other end of the equation when all of our actions relate back to impressing other people and finding encouragement through social media, we fail to live a life that has a deep meaning. When our happiness is dependent on the approval of other people we do not have the support system necessary to help us through rough patches.
Nussbaum in her quote is advocating for a society that focuses more on the reality of life and not the fantasies of material possessions. When our entire focus is on outside rewards, buying things, and receiving praise for monetary success, we become trapped in a box where our lives are defined by materialism. Without achieving a certain level of financial success or without purchasing certain cars or clothes a person who judges the world by outward displays of material success will feel like a failure. The quote above shows that this lifestyle may be sustainable when things are going well, but once a promotion does not occur or an illness presents itself, the individual does not have a strong moral foundation to stand upon. When we base all of our actions and lives around achieving more, we lose a focus on building real relationships and risk forcing ourselves down paths that will not benefit us in the long run.
If we shift our focus and ideas of success then we can eliminate the little voice in our heads that tells us we need to achieve a certain job to impress our friends, family, or the strangers in line at the grocery store. We can begin to work towards things that truly excite and interest us rather than striving to pursue what advertisements and society has told us to work towards. This helps our lives have a deeper meaning, and can create a greater sense of self confidence so when we do reach points of struggle, we can focus on the important aspects of life, and overcome our challenges.