You know the drill. You log on to Facebook to see what’s happening, and looking at all the awesome things everybody is doing leaves you feeling inadequate, lonely, or, most insulting, like a failure. Considering the number of Facebook-is-terrible-for-your-self-esteem studies, we really should know better. The problem, as Benjamin Johnson, an assistant professor at VU University in Amsterdam who studies the psychological effects of social media, told me, is that “looking upward” at happy people too often backfires. “We like to look at how others are doing to improve our moods,” he said, “but then we think about ourselves and get depressed.”
I was pretty sure this was happening to me, but I had no idea to what degree my relatively normal Facebook usage (a dozen check-ins a week, with half as many low-impact postings) might be altering my mood. Would changing what I chose to share make me happier? I devised a simple experiment: for two weeks, I’d update my status as often and as honestly as possible and see how it made me feel.
This kind of public candor is much more difficult than it sounds, especially for a social-media self-editor like me. Early on, I’ll admit, my posts were pretty timid—canine celebrity puns, a funny ironic picture of my anti-foodie frozen burrito, an uploaded Runtastic map of a quick-and-dirty mountain-bike ride—but people liked them, and I felt good. Great, even; call me schmaltzy, but when an old neighbor who had crashed his motocross bike into the deep end of an empty swimming pool gave me a thumbs-up on a post with a funny picture of Albert Einstein and a self-deprecating remark about my own hair, it took me straight to happy town.
I eventually worked up the courage to share truly personal information. At the peak of my boldness, I posted a long excerpt from a series of psychiatric exams I’d taken as a boy. This included some sad, heavy stuff that I still grapple with and normally talk about only with three other people. Examples: “Michael seems unable to live up to the expectations he places upon himself,” “has low self-esteem,” and “appears withdrawn and anxious.”
Hitting the post button felt good. I expected silence or a kind word from a few of my touchy-feely friends. Instead I got comments from people who knew me then and barely know me now, ranging from “funny and touching” to “brilliant” to “what a loser.” (Fortunately, my self-esteem is now high enough to handle a range of feedback.) I was happy because I was proud of myself. I revealed something meaningful and sensitive, critics be damned.
One grumpy afternoon, I confessed that “Facebook only serves to increase or decrease my self-esteem, based on how I’m feeling each day. Yet I rarely have the sense to stay away on down days. Is this how alcoholics feel?”
My honesty was validated by a veritable popcorn machine of likes and hang-in-theres, including a nice note from my mom, who rarely uses social media. Again, it felt good. As I let down my guard and revealed a more honest picture of my interior self, people generally responded in kind. A few friends began to love my posts so much that they e-mailed and texted just to cheer me on. (Another thought my account had been hacked.) When I announced that I was done with my experiment, an old skiing-, mountain-biking, and green-chile-stew-eating pal sent a message saying he hoped I wouldn’t revert to my low-key and infrequent updates. “I’m going to give you a bit of truthiness,” he wrote. “I liked your frenetic posts. You know why? I miss you.”