Should you ditch social media for a happier life?

Written by
Jonny Gifford

03 Oct 2016

03 Oct 2016 • by Jonny Gifford

A recent experiment by the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark found that quitting Facebook for just one week led to greater levels of life satisfaction, happiness, enthusiasm, concentration and decisiveness, and lower levels of sadness, anger, worry, stress, loneliness and depression. This was a randomised controlled trial, often dubbed the ‘gold standard’ of primary research evidence, so the findings should be taken seriously. 

Are you a social media addict?

As so many of us are social media addicts, it’s safe to say this was not a piece of research everyone was waiting for. Somewhat ironically, I heard about the research through Facebook and then saw the item discussed on Twitter. Indeed, dedicated to their platform of choice, I witnessed various promises to ignore the findings when the inevitable research is published showing similar effects for Twitter. 

What’s the reason for this consistent improvement in mental health from what might be called social media fasting? One clue lies in another finding, showing that the Facebook ‘fasters’ were less likely to feel they were wasting their time. From experience I can associate with this, although it’s nothing unique about social media. I imagine the same effect would occur from stopping watching TV.

In considering the nature of social media, the main interpretation the institute puts on its findings is that Facebook drives envy. The research finds that this is strikingly common, with between 30 and 50% of users saying they feel envy for the ‘amazing experiences’, the happiness or the success seen in the lives of their social media ‘friends’. 

Hand picking your public persona

There’s no doubt we have fully moved into an age in which it is normal to publically project oneself online. And of course, we tend to be highly selective about what facets of ourselves we share. At least until we become victims of trolling, most of us have a good deal of control over the image we project of ourselves, be it social butterfly, amusing funster, family guy, one-track ideologue, sharing-the-love encourager, global traveller, nostalgic reminiscer, anarchic contrarian, wise sage, knowing cynic, or my personal favourite, optimistic sceptic. And I’m sure there are more social media typologies to be had but I’ll stop there. 

At one end, there is a general suggestion that we can be selective to the point of insincere about the image we create of ourselves, even if this image does not always convince. Anecdotally, stories abound of people posting happy family images on the virtual world of social media while their actual relationships are falling to bits. 

From another angle, it’s evident that we are naturally jealous of others. For example, our research into pay and reward suggests that we instinctively compare what we have to what others have and are finely tuned to unfair distribution, especially where hard cash is concerned.
So social media can make us less happy, perhaps because we project an inauthentic view of ourselves and most probably because it feeds envy. End of story? Not quite. 

A striking aspect of social media is that its usage has grown incredibly quickly; so quickly, in fact, that the norms of online behaviour have been left in its wake. It’s very easy to ruin one’s personal reputations and career prospects, as the first youth police and crime commissioner, Paris Brown, found out; or for an organisation’s brand to be damaged in seconds, as HMV can testify. 

In years to come I can imagine we’ll look back at early social media users as kids with chainsaws, unthinkingly playing about with powerful communications tools we don’t know how to use sensibly. It’s no surprise so much of the focus on employees’ use of social media is on the risks it presents to organisations, rather than the benefits on offer.

But norms evolve as we adapt to changing contexts and new tools. I noticed this most recently on the tube; specifically at Metropolitan line stations, where instead of the usual rush hour crush, there are almost eerily ordered queues. It looks like an irrational random breakout of English values, but is, as far as I can tell, a product of the glass doors that line the platforms on that line. They make it more conducive to this most English of habits. 

Norms are doubtless changing on social media too. In September, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook is introducing a ‘dislike’ button on the grounds that the ‘like’ button sometimes feels out of place. He argued, “People aren’t looking for an ability to down-vote other people’s posts. What they really want is to be able to express empathy … Not every moment is a good moment.”

Are we moving towards a less airbrushed, more authentic way of using social media? Time will tell, but my hope is that we are. It’s undoubtedly the way that many of us use tools like Facebook that causes social ills, rather than the tools themselves. Professionally we have a responsibility to our organisations – and personally we have one to ourselves – to learn to use it to good effect.