It’s easy to get frustrated by the incessant rings, dings and pop-up messages of the tech in our lives. Technology helps us communicate faster and work better, but it can also become an albatross. Researchers are beginning to study exactly how it affects happiness and emotional development in the long run. So far, the results from academic studies have been a wake-up call: Teens who spend hours online become less happy; the mere presence of a cellphone during a face-to-face conversation can reduce feelings of closeness, trust and relationship quality.
While these findings should give us pause, there is another side to the story—about how technology can (and is) being used to improve communication. Think of the numerous geographically divided families that can now communicate on FaceTime or Skype for a fraction of the cost, or of far-flung friends who now stay in touch via Facebook or Snapchat.
Positive news about social media
Keith Hampton, a professor of media and information at Michigan State University, argues that the idea that we interact either online or offline is a false dichotomy. Through his studies, he has become convinced that social media and the internet are actually drawing us closer together—both online and offline.
If we know that social media has the potential to positively or negatively impact our relationships, the next step is to think more carefully both about what we are consuming online and what we are spreading. Individuals who actively invest in others are 40 percent more likely to receive social support themselves. So how can we help spread positivity? Here are three tips to get you started:
1. Don’t be 'phony.'
Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress we feel when we hold or act upon contradictory beliefs, ideas or values at the same time. Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston and author of The Gifts of Imperfection, describes authenticity as “the daily practice of letting go who we think we are supposed to be and embracing who we are.” The further we get from our authentic selves, the further we move from becoming our ideal selves. The internet offers rare opportunities for anonymity and reinvention. But don’t use it that way, for the sake of your own happiness. Make sure your online persona reflects your actual persona, and let the world see the real you.
2. If you are going to read the feed, invest the time to respond.
It makes a difference whether you simply scroll through posts or actually stop to respond. A recent study found that individuals who use Facebook passively, experience declines in well-being over time. If your friend said something profound or funny, would you merely flash them a smile or would you verbally respond? Researchers report that time spent reading posts from acquaintances without responding to them is related to a slight increase in negative mood; conversely, posters experience an increase in happiness when they see that their friends reacted to their posts in a personal way rather than just hitting a like button.
3. Let your compliments complement your conversations.
Social media is not intended to be a replacement for offline communication, but rather a different mode of expressing one’s self. Use it to enhance, not replace your actual friendships and acquaintances. Make plans, check in and then get together in the “RL” (real world).
These small changes make a huge difference in the way that we perceive and engage with social media. If we aspire to see a world where technology strengthens our relationships and improves our mood, we have to start by being intentional with our own behavior.
Amy Blankson, aka the ‘Happy Tech Girl,’ is on a quest to find strategies to help individuals balance productivity and well-being in the digital era. Amy, with her brother Shawn Achor, co-founded GoodThink, which brings the principles of positive psychology to life and works with organizations such as Google, NASA and the U.S. Army. Her new book is called The Future of Happiness: 5 Modern Strategies for Balancing Productivity and Well-being in the Digital Era.