Unhappiness in Happy Places

Social media and its “wax moon faces”

unhappy article
Photo by Subham Dash from Pexels

In a recent article published in The Washington Post, concerns of rising mental health issues in the happiest places are coming to light, particularly regarding anxiety and depression in young people. WaPo reporter Rick Noack writes, “Researchers acknowledge that reasons young people are increasingly anxious or depressed are still not fully understood, but recent studies have cited the use of social media and perceptions of not being able to fulfill unrealistic expectations of employers, friends or partners.”

If you’ve read the novel Fahrenheit 451, what might come to mind is the character Clarisse McClellan and her life-altering question for protagonist Guy Montag: “Are you happy?” It is a question that sets into motion the reality of Montag’s society– that is that most are truly unhappy and either don’t realize it or don’t want to admit it.

Depicting a future, dystopian America, author Ray Bradbury makes some impressively accurate predictions about the evolution of technology and human behavior. In the 1950s classic, future Americans are obsessed with their big screen TVs (known in the book as “parlor walls” as they span the length of entire living room walls), are constantly plugging up their ears with wireless earphones (yeah, Bradbury predicted Bluetooth), and often find themselves “thinking little at all about nothing in particular.” In short, technology has played a major role in distorting their perceptions of themselves and the world around them.

Researchers acknowledge that reasons young people are increasingly anxious or depressed are still not fully understood, but recent studies have cited the use of social media and perceptions of not being able to fulfill unrealistic expectations of employers, friends or partners.

To Noack’s report, which points at social media as the catalyst behind the facade of perfect lives which bombard and influence so many young people today, Bradbury appears to be predicting this fear of imperfection and adversity through the banishing of books and the obsession with screens. Through his character Faber (an old, retired English professor), Bradbury explains it as such:

So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, powerless, hairless, expressionless. We are living in a time when flowers are trying to live on flowers, instead of growing on good rain and black loam. Even fireworks, for all their prettiness, come from the chemistry of the earth. Yet somehow we think we can grow, feeding on flowers and fireworks, without completing the cycle back to reality. (p. 83)

To think that everyone’s lives are that perfect on social media, that everyone’s body should be that shape, that everyone’s day is going that well, that everyone’s successes were that easy is to be incredibly naive. But if this content is what most young people are consuming on social media, then it’s no wonder self-perceptions and expectations of young people have become distorted. They don’t see the “good rain and black loam.” They don’t see the “pores in the face of life.” It’s all flowers and “wax moon faces.”

We are living in a time when flowers are trying to live on flowers, instead of growing on good rain and black loam.

There’s one moment early on in the novel that kicks off one of Bradbury’s technology themes. Shortly before the posed question on whether or not Montag is truly happy, Bradbury describes Clarisse through the eyes of Montag (who has just met Clarisse for the first time, mind you): “Her face, turned to him now, was fragile milk crystal with a soft and constant light in it. It was not the hysterical light of electricity but–what? But the strangely comfortable and rare and gently flattering light of the candle.”

If we want to get rid of the “wax moon faces,” perhaps we should use more candles.


faberClub Discussion

  • Further into the WaPo article, Noack includes a statistic reported from Sweden, “where young citizens were 20 percent more likely to be prescribed anxiety medications in 2013 than they were in 2006.” It might be important to note that technologies and platforms such as the iPhone and Facebook were launched in or around 2007. Is there a correlation here?
  • For better or for worse, how have different innovations in technology transformed our habits, relationships, values? Is there such a thing as being too connected?
  • What are some examples of people posting “flowers”? What would the symbolic “good rain and black loam” look like?
  • What is Bradbury trying to say with his contrasting descriptions of light–between that of “hysterical” electricity and that of a candle? Do they symbolize anything? What do those two types of light look like today? How do they impact your state of happiness?

References

Bradbury, R. (1953) Fahrenheit 451. New York: De Ray Books.

Noack, R. (2019, January 10) In the world’s ‘happiest countries,’ an increasing number of young people don’t feel well at all. The Washington Post.

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