How does Social Media Affect our Happiness?

July 26, 2018

Professor Tim Bono in Fourlaps Silver Charge Tee

Professor Bono wearing the Silver Charge Tee in Heather Grey

With Professor Tim Bono

In the past ten years, a deluge of new social media apps have found their way onto our devices. These apps have quickly gone from providing fun distractions to becoming integral parts of our day-to-day lives. As history goes, we’re the first to experience this social media “revolution.” But what if it’s doing more harm than good?

Social media can provide effective motivation for following-through on new pursuits, but it can also serve as a dangerous black-hole of digital one-upmanship. In this new era of uber-connectivity, how do we measure our expectations without getting disappointed?

Professor Tim Bono of Washington University in St. Louis has studied social media’s ascent as a source -- and resource -- for happiness. In his book, When Likes Aren’t Enough, he offers a crash course on the science of happiness and practical advice on how to use social media and other popular outlets in positive ways.

Our Founder Daniel Shapiro spoke with Professor Bono to get his expert advice on whether social media is friend or foe, and how we can leverage our digital connection to benefit our goals and our personal happiness:

Can social media provide effective motivation for people who are starting new projects, like new training routines?

One of the best ways to modify any behavior is simply to observe it. Writing our goals down and sharing them with others can be an effective way to hold ourselves accountable. If the decision to stay at home on the couch means that we will have to log a dismal zero hours of physical activity for the day, that alone can motivate us to lace up our sneakers and head to the gym.

Some people find posting progress toward their fitness goals to be motivating when they get a lot of encouragement from friends and followers on social media. This kind of reinforcement from others can be useful—so long as you do not derive your entire sense of worth from it. Just make sure that you find value in the intrinsic value of the workout. Take time to reflect on how you are improving your physical and psychological health, and pay attention to the gratification that comes from completing a gym session or going on a long run.

“This kind of reinforcement from others can be useful—so long as you do not derive your entire sense of worth from it.”

Tim Bono in Bolt Short in Army Green

Professor Bono running in the Bolt Short in Army Green

One of the most important components of happiness is autonomy, the sense that we are in control of our own well-being. Ultimately we have no say over how many people on social media will offer encouraging comments or like our status updates that detail our progress. What we are in control of is the ability to work just a little harder everyday to make progress toward our goals, and the sense of accomplishment we feel after completing a challenging workout. If reinforcement on social media gets you going at first, that’s great, but eventually shift your attention to the benefits you are bringing about yourself and let that motivate you to keep up with your exercise regimen.

How does social media negatively affect our overall well being (if at all)?

A number of studies have found that social media is taking a toll on our psychological health. Spending too much time on social media is associated with lower self-esteem, fewer positive emotions, less optimism, less sleep, less motivation, and perhaps most ironically, feeling less socially connected to others.

What’s driving these effects? Long before the advent of social media, psychologists knew that social comparison is one of the fundamental barriers to our well-being. It’s hard to be happy if we constantly concern ourselves with how we measure up to those around us since doing so places our happiness in a variable that is completely beyond our control. Social media has ultimately become a vehicle for social comparison—within moments of logging on to social media we have access to others’ accomplishments, vacations, job promotions, home upgrades, and culinary creations. It’s nearly impossible not to get swept into the cycle of comparison. We are social creatures and so it’s only natural that we are motivated to pay attention to those around us, but it becomes problematic when we use how other people are doing as a barometer for own sense of worth.

“The happiness you derive from an authentic connection with another person will be far greater than any comments or likes you get on social media.”

Tim Bono in Logo Baseball Hat

Professor Bono wearing the Logo 4 Baseball Hat

For the record, social media is not inherently bad. It can be used for a lot of wonderful things that can lead to information sharing, entertainment, and even authentic social connection. But we have to be wise consumers of this media and aware of the potential risks. If you find that your social media use is leaving you anxious, envious, or otherwise feeling worse about yourself than when you logged on, you may want to modify how you are using it. You don’t necessarily have to give it up altogether, but you might at least consider spending less time on it and replacing part of that time with something else.

The next time you are tempted to scroll through social media, perhaps scroll through your list of contacts instead. Find someone to call or FaceTime. The happiness you derive from an authentic connection with another person will be far greater than any comments or likes you get on social media.

What’s the best advice you can give for finding a healthy balance between social and professional pursuits?

Nothing is more important for our psychological health than high-quality friendships. Find an activity that allows you to get together with friends on a regular, ongoing basis. A weekly happy hour, poker night, or TV show ensures consistency and momentum in your social interactions. If you know every Tuesday night is when you get together with your buddies, you’ll fit everything else around it. Otherwise you may be tempted to get together “once work slows down,” making it ever-easier to keep putting it off. Prioritizing time for friendships and activities outside of work provides necessary balance and a reprieve from stressors and hassles that build up from the daily grind. It also gives you something to look forward to during those especially trying days.

As you make decisions about how your spend your time, keep in mind that the single strongest predictor of our happiness is the strength of our social networks (of course, I’m referring to the three-dimensional people in this case—the number of Facebook friends or Instagram followers we have does not count!). One of the best ways to develop authentic social connection is by pursuing activities that align with our interests and values. Doing so allows us to meet people who share similar priorities, which can provide the basis of strong friendships. And if it’s a group of friends who enjoy physical activity and like to go running, hiking, or biking together, even better! Physical activity itself is important for psychological health, and if you’re doing those activities with other people you’re incorporating two happiness-boosting activities at once.

Professor Tim Bono

Tim Bono, PhD, is a faculty member in the department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Over the last decade, thousands of students have taken his popular courses on the Psychology of Young Adulthood and the Science of Happiness. He summarizes the research from those courses, along with how his students have put that information into practice in their own lives, in his new book, “When Likes Aren’t Enough: A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness,” available from Amazon and other online sources.

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