Finding happiness in the social media age

The more we compare, the worse we can feel about our accomplishments. “Social media is often a distortion of our perceptions". That’s how Jaime Clark, the director of counseling and psychological services at Southern Illinois University, describes social media use when it comes to our emotions.

SIU juniors Allie Bragg and Emily Homer use Instagram and Facebook daily to connect with friends, but think most people paint a phony portrayal.

“A lot of times, like you see people’s profiles, you know them in real life, and you are kind of like, ‘That’s not you,’” Bragg said.

Clark says research shows most online posts are exaggerated, embellished, or hyped-up —especially if the user has a low self esteem.

“Even if we are posting those things too, we know those are not necessarily how we truly feel or accurate reflections. But we assume everyone else is, so it really can lead to decreased happiness, especially decreased self esteem,” Clark said.

It’s described in social comparison theory. It means we base our worth on how we stack up against others. If someone is already inflating their Facebook posts, the divide between how I feel and how I think they’re doing will be much bigger than our respective situations may be in real life. 

“You know, measuring your status by how others are evaluating their day, how they are evaluating the posts that you choose to put on,” Clark explained.

Bragg and Homer say they avoid comparing themselves to others most of the time.

“I get a little jealous when people have, like, really cool pictures in, like, fun places,” Bragg said.

They care more about how social media makes conversations awkward for their generation.

“Like now instead of reaching out and talking face to face to meet people, it’s you add him on Snapchat, and then if you see them in public you’re like, ‘oh hey,’” Homer said.

Those are interpersonal skills psychologist Clark says we’re losing if we don’t stop focusing superficially on comments and likes and start developing real, face to face friendships.

Friendships like Ben Hudson’s and Nicole Reed’s. They found the balance Clark says everyone needs when using social media.

“I think that we need to be able to evaluate, ‘Is this improving my life or is this making me feel bad every time I checking it?’” Clark said.

Clark adds that we often rely too much on the external validation that comes with our popular social media posts. She says your level of self esteem and happiness can impact how you feel after using social media.

“I feel when we were younger, we were trying to brag a lot, too, like, ‘Oh I am doing this,’” Reed said.

Nicole started working right after graduation and would check on what her friends were doing online.

“I was kind of jealous. Everybody else was still in college, and I was having to work all the time,” Reed said.

Ben went through several jobs before finding the right career for him.

“I’d see friends, especially friends that moved off directly out of college, found great jobs. I’d kind of be, you know, maybe getting a little nosy looking at what they’re doing. Not in a, I wouldn’t say jealous way. I’m just being like, ‘Man, I can’t wait until I get to that point,’” Hudson said.

“Definitely, the research would show they are not as happy as they are. We tend to inflate those posts," Clark said.

In these moments, Clark suggests to stop comparing and focus on your accomplishments.

"Building mastery over different activities, saying ‘You know what? I feel good about myself when I’m doing this,’ and, you know, to be able to build up that self-esteem through other activities outside of just being on the phone," Clark said.

It doesn’t mean getting rid of social media, just finding a balance between your use online and interaction outside.

“Learning (that), OK, you have that. That something you enjoy, but how do you also enjoy these other things and have some of those be actually face to face, one on one type contacts, or even groups of friends contact?” Clark said.

Like Hudson and Reed, who now spend the majority of their limited social media time sharing funny posts or actually keeping in touch with friends instead of making comparisons.

Clark also advises you to diversify your day: join a new club, volunteer, call or even visit a friend, and work on limiting your use. And, if you have young children, really try to limit their time on social media.

To take our quiz to see if you’re addicted to social media, click here.

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