Facebook braggarts may be smarter than we think.
We love to complain about friends who constantly post about their fabulous relationships, jobs, and experiences on social media, but research shows these expressions of gratitude can actually make people happier. As the holidays approach, we will likely see a resurgence of social media "gratitude challenges," meant to tap into the psychological benefits of journaling and thankfulness. If we consider how people use Facebook to share and document positive feelings, though, the #blessed don't appear so self-absorbed. But that doesn't mean we should let rose-tinted social profiles prevent us from offering real-life support.
As far back as the 1930s, psychologists have observed the emotional and physical benefits of recording experiences of hope, love, and gratitude. Today, journaling and listing the positives in your life is a widely supported strategy to promote well-being. "You can infuse ordinary events with meaning by expressing appreciation, love and gratitude, even for simple things," said Barbara L. Fredrickson in her paper "The Value of Positive Emotions." Fredrickson is a Psychology Professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and one of the leading academics in the realm of Positive Psychology. This relatively new discipline studies how to increase well-being, not just treat illness.
Some critics point to constant social media sharing as evidence of an epidemic of narcissism, but the reasons we share now often resemble the reasons our grandparents did. Twenty years ago, someone who was just offered a job or found out they are pregnant might immediately start phoning family and friends to share their excitement. We love to share good news. Is posting it on Facebook really so different? In just a few seconds, we can spread exciting news to our entire network.
But we don't post just to communicate with others. Platforms like Facebook are also a way of recording important or meaningful moments in our lives. Social media profiles have become our digital scrapbooks. They are easy to add to and can't be misplaced or damaged. You may grow tired of the endless pictures of your friend's child, but unlike previous generations, they probably won't lament neglecting their kid's baby book. They may not have a construction paper shrine to Joey's first steps, first haircut, and first birthday, but ten years from now parents need only search their profile to find text, pictures, and even video of these events.
"That's great, but why do they need to show everybody?"
In reality, most people aren't. While users of Twitter and Instagram often make their profiles available to anyone, posts to Facebook, by far the most popular platform, are usually limited to one's friends. The whole wide world is not seeing your coworker's baby shower pictures or updates on their marathon training. And if you don't want to see them either, you don't have to. You can now maintain a cyberspace relationship without actually having to see your cousin's daily selfie. Facebook and Twitter both allow you to mute particular friends. You don't have to see their updates and they don't come asking why you unfollowed them. Complaining about your friends oversharing on social media is like saying you can't stand a certain radio station. Turn it off or change the station.
Although noting the positives in our lives can benefit the person posting, profiles that show nothing but success and happiness can be misleading for the audience. No one wants to publicize their failures. When your relationship is rocky or you're falling behind at work, you might share it with a close friend, but you probably don't want to broadcast it to your entire network. The urge to share good news and keep bad news hidden means that Facebook gives a skewed representation of our day-to-day life. We are acutely aware of the disappointments and setbacks in our own lives but rarely see others struggling when we look through our Facebook feed. Comparing our ups and downs with the seemingly charmed lives of others has been associated with decreased life satisfaction and self-esteem.
This is why it is so important to recognize Facebook for what it is: a highlights reel. It's like only watching the top 10 plays on Sports Center; you see the triumphant moments but don't see the training, injuries, and losses. Don't take family and friends' social profiles at face value. You don't need to be a happy person to have a happy profile.
Social media is a great tool for sharing joy and gratitude, but a strong relationship is built on sharing the bad along with the good. We need to share the experiences that don't make the scrapbook and rely on each other when we don't feel like we have much to celebrate. Let your loved ones record and share their happiness on Facebook. If you want the whole story, give them a call.