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Twitter And the Dalai Lama: Can Social Media Help Create a Happier World?

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I hear it quite a bit, including comments here on Huffington Post: "Twitter is useless. It is just people with big egos trying to promote themselves. The sooner it dies, the better." People argue that it is inherently opposed to a mindful, happy life.

In fact, the issue of happiness, and technologies role in either helping support or diminish it, came up recently at the Peace summit with the Dalai Lama, where one of the panels included eBay founder, Pierre Omidyar. The Dalai Lama spoke of the danger of developing more affection for technological devices than people, and emphasized that all the external things we think will make us happy -- money, fame, power -- never do because it requires an inner shift. Pierre spoke of the ability of technology to help bring people together based on shared interests.

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There was no time in the panel to discuss this further. While I share many of the concerns that the Dalai Lama expressed, and even wrote a book that addressed some of these challenges, I think much is determined by how we relate to our gadgets and social media. Of course we can use these as distractions and food for the ego; however, it seems also helpful to ask, Can we also engage with them in a way that is meaningful and leads to a quality life? If so, what might this look like?

Here is my take:

1) Have a Transparency of Being

"One of our core values is to be humble, so if someone applies who is really smart, talented and experienced, even if they could make an immediate impact to our bottom line, if the person is egotistical, we will not hire him or her; it's not even a question." ~ Tony Hsieh, CEO Zappos

I am not one to tell every little detail about my life on Twitter or Facebook, as I like to keep some parts of my life private. However, to me there is a difference between posting what one is comfortable with, versus using social networks like Twitter in a way that is arrogant, and that tries to build up a particular persona that is not authentic.

We can, for example, fabricate certain experiences, and at the same time hide everything that does not support the image we want to promote -- the image as the "always positive coach," or the "all-knowing social media guru," or "the hip music guy," or whatever it is. As such, there is not a real a human being there, as much as there is a promotional persona that is never authentic because it is solely focused on building and reinforcing this image. This, I am pretty sure the Dalai Lama would say, is using social media in a way that will not lead to happiness.

2) Align Online and Offline Actions

"Making the world a better place should take the same focus as devising the next great widget." ~ Larry Brilliant, former head of Google.org

The beauty of Twitter is that we can use it to learn more about facets of diverse people in the world, from following the Tweets of a technology CEO to someone like Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan. We can get glimpses into other worlds in which we previously had very little access, and from this understand that we all have similar hopes and fears, that we are more alike than different.

We can also use social media, however, such that our online actions are distinctly different than that of our offline ones. We can, for example, act like an asshole to ten people during the day, then do one kind act, and only tweet about the kind act. When offline and "no one is watching" we can treat the customer service representative from the phone company or the checker at the store with disdain and impatience, then go back to trying to appear cool and kind on Twitter.

As such, we have two distinct selves, the online one and the offline one. In this we can be pretty sure happiness will be missed. The Dalai Lama, I am pretty sure, would suggest that every action, both online and offline, is important and impacts our level of happiness.

3) Act Beyond What May Benefit Ourselves

"Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible." ~ The Dalai Lama

Lets face it. Both Twitter and Facebook can be a haven for self-promotion, with one post after another of people claiming if you just hire their services or buy their product you can have the best sex life, more money, or thousands of followers on Twitter.

While there is a place for promotion, studies suggest that happiness is found through doing what we think is right, no matter if we believe it will have any benefit to us or not. In fact, some of the greatest leaders in the world, from Nelson Mandela to the Dalai Lama, are highly regarded because they have acted with concern for people beyond themselves. Focusing strictly on what we think will increase our reputation or bank account, we can be pretty sure, will also not lead to happiness.

Conclusion

Social media like Twitter is growing fast, with time spent on social networking sites tripling in the last year, and in the process it is making us increasingly connected. However, like any communication tool, from a telephone to a TV, the real question is how it is being used; the quality of communication that is sent through it.

At the recent Clinton Global forum, President Clinton was quoted as saying that what is in the mind and the heart precedes what can be done by the hands. As amazing and cool technology is, and especially the social media of our age, the mind and heart we bring to it will in the end determine its value both to ourselves and the world. After all Twitter is, essentially, an empty box with which to share content. What we add and whether it leads to happiness or misery is largely up to us.

Of course, if you view most posts on Twitter (or tweets), it is easy to see how someone could easily write it off. In fact, Pear Analytics conducted a study some time back that found that 40% of tweets were "pointless babble." However, if we live mindlessly, we can cause misery no matter what we do, even if we never touch a cell phone or join a social network. And if live mindfully, I do not see why we cannot support a more conscious world, no matter what channels of communication and technologies we choose to use.

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Soren Gordhamer works with individuals and groups on living with greater mindfulness and purpose in our technology-rich age. He is the author of Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Secrets for the Creative and Constantly Connected (HarperOne, 2009) and the audio series Meditations for the Constantly Connected. Website: www.sorengordhamer.com

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