This title is not just a tease. I do believe utilized well social media can help all individuals reach a happier and healthier state. We often read about the doom and gloom of Facebook (I am not referring to its current stock valuation). How can we control social media and ensure it is not controlling us?

A fairly large percentage of patients in my San Francisco private practice have entered therapy within a year of moving to the “city by the bay.” This isn’t a big surprise considering San Francisco has a large transient population and that recent transplants always lose one of the most important contributors to happiness and good health: social support.  

Just so we are sharing the same perspective on the definition of social support, I’ll give you psychiatrist Sidney Cobb’s definition. He proposes that social support is a subjective sensation in which the individual feels cared for, loved, esteemed and valued. The individual also feels they belong to a network of communication and mutual obligation.

From my experience, if I had to choose one thing that plays the biggest role in one’s happiness, it is the quality of a person’s social support. Research in this area tends to agree with my anecdotal experience, showing that social support is the greatest predictor of happiness and success. 

There are many reports confirming the stress-reducing and health benefits of social support. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that social support buffers the adverse effects of stress on cardiovascular and immune responses, which can provide numerous health benefits. Laboratory studies show that when subjects are subjected to stress, emotional support reduces the usual sharp rise in blood pressure and increased secretion of damaging stress related hormones.

There are many ways to increase the quantity and quality of one’s social support system, but since the focus of this blog is about our digital selves, let’s take a look at how we can make technology work for us and not against us. 

When social media sites, such as Facebook, entered into the lives of millions, many were overwhelmed with the friends that they couldn’t remember or maybe never knew. Hours were and are lost to stalking the Facebook profiles of others. My patient’s self esteem would often take a hit since their lives seemed to come up short compared to the apparent perfect lives of their friends or exes.

Now that Facebook has been around awhile, it is time to control it and not let it control you. There is no reason that social media shouldn’t bring joy. Each time you log on, your oxytocin should increase and your cortisol levels should decrease.  

Here are some tips of how to ensure Facebook brings you pure moments of joy:

Engage Actively:  To achieve maximum happiness benefits from social media you need to take an active role. Don’t just read postings; post your own to start a dialogue with meaning and depth. For further benefit actually meet up with Facebook friends.  

Perception:  As Shawn Achor, positive psychology expert and author of The Happiness Advantage, explains your perception of your activity on social media makes a significant difference. Studies have shown if you think it is a waste of time to be on Facebook or even emailing then your activity doesn’t have any rejuvenating benefits, it doesn’t make you feel happy. On the other hand, if you perceive your activity on Facebook or twitter as exciting and that it is connecting you to others and or valuable, it then is rejuvenating and even causes your success rates at work to rise.

Control Settings:  Life’s anxieties fall into two categories: those we can control and those which we cannot. Fortunately, we can control what we read or post on social media sites. You do not have to de-friend that Facebook over-poster, but you can unsubscribe from that person or only see important posts. On Facebook, just hover your cursor to the top, right hand corner of the post and choose how much you want to hear from each person. You might have 1,200 friends, but perhaps you only want to see photos and updates from 40 of them.  Go ahead— quiet the pervasively negative posters, the ranters, and the braggers.  

Facebook has another helpful feature for managing the chaos of posts: the ability to categorize. You can group your friends into close friends, family, neighbors or any other category. When you click on that particular category these are the only postings you will see.

Likes:  A nice feature of Facebook is the “likes.”  If you like a band, a store, author, non-profit…then you will receive regular postings that should bring you many joyful moments. 

Reach Out:  Many recent studies on Positive Psychology out of Harvard and University of British Columbia have proven that kindness to others has a significant boost on our own happiness. Every day, pick one person in your online community and say something nice to them. Both they and you will feel better. There is no day I like Facebook more than on my birthday, as the many postings are a nice reminder of how many wonderful people are in my life.

So, although you don’t have control over Facebook’s stock valuation, you have absolute control of whether social media brings you happiness and improved health or stress and anxiety. 

About the Authors

Brett P. Kennedy Psy.D.

Brett P. Kennedy, Psy.D., has a private practice in New York where he provides psychotherapy to adults and couples.

Tamara J Hicks Psy.D.

Tamara J. Hicks, Psy.D., is co-founder of Potrero Hill Psychotherapy in San Francisco and provides psychotherapy to adults, children, couples, and families.

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