Why being online makes us happier...

We get insight from to three experts within the fields of psychology, sociology, and tech to find out how and why the internet makes us happy – and why it doesn’t. Here’s what they said.

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"...pressure to look like a model all the time."

Anna Akbari, PhD

Sociologist, entrepreneur, writer and former professor at NYU and Parsons School of Design

…on virtual profiles

Why are our profiles so important to us?

I often say our 2D online selves outrank our 3D selves in the age of the internet. “Likes,” retweets, and swiping “yes,” make our brain’s pleasure centre light up in the same way a drug does. And so we keep coming back for more affirmation. It’s very enticing, and the fact this validation is public makes it much more rewarding.

Do we compare ourselves to others more online than in the real world?

Comparisons happen everywhere humans exist. Online, we’re inclined to compare at a higher rate than in the real world due to having unfettered access to another “person” (via their profile), and we’re primarily left with our own judgement and willpower to guide us. “Facebook facelifts” are a real thing, and with the rise of Instagram, everyone feels pressure to look like a model all the time. But there is a positive side. Social media provides support in times of need and validation for our life choices too.

How can we be happy online?

There’s no regulatory body kicking you off Facebook or Instagram after a certain amount of time each day. Nor is someone stopping you from repeatedly virtually stalking your ex’s profiles, all of which can be self-destructive if left unchecked. Bottom line: you need to control your engagement with the platforms, and not fall victim to a constant state of virtual fear of missing out (FOMO).

Perhaps you limit yourself to only checking social media once or twice a day (as opposed to every hour), turn off all mobile notifications for “likes” and instead keep them on only for direct messages.

Virtual profiles and the platforms that host them must be approached like a drug: seductive, fun, powerful, and dangerous. Use them responsibly.  

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"We all react positively to being “liked” on social media."

Dr. Pamela Rutledge

Director at the Media Psychology Research Center, Faculty member at Fielding Graduate University, Media Psychology, Instructor and Advisory Board Member at UC Irvine Extension and blogger for Psychology Today

…on being happy online

Can the way we use the internet make us happier?

The internet itself doesn’t make you happy or sad. But it’s a very powerful tool that enables us to do activities that make us happy. For example, we can use it to expand our social circles and support network, and have our existence and ideas validated by others.

The internet also enables greater access to information and people. This affects us psychologically by increasing our sense of competence and social connection, as it practically brings opportunities and resources within reach. This includes the ability to engage in formal and casual education, receive social validation, observe social and cultural norms and practice social behaviours, as well as participate in national discussions on social platforms. All of these things address the core drivers of human behaviour, agency, competence, and social connection, which are essential to our mental and physical wellbeing.

Why does our online activity have such power to affect our moods?

Because humans are social animals and rely on social connection for their mental and physical wellbeing, people are hypersensitive to things like social validation, affiliation, liking, disrespect and exclusions. We all react positively to being “liked” on social media. We have an instinctive need to be accepted into a group (social validation), and at primal level, to the biological need for survival.

Is there a ‘best’ way to be online?

The best approach for online use is to practice mindfulness and presence in your choices and actions. Be aware of when you go online so you’re not doing it out of sheer habit. Being mindful allows you to think of your online activities in relation to what you want to accomplish, just like you would evaluate offline activities.

How can we be happy online?

Recognizing that online behaviours can produce the same feelings these triggers engender offline allows us to take steps to avoid situations that spark our discomfort. For example, if following certain people on Facebook make you feel left out or not good enough, unfollow them. If watching silly cat videos on YouTube makes you laugh, then schedule in a cat video during your coffee break. Laughter literally changes your body chemistry.

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..."probably a rather unhealthy romance."

Donna Freitas, PhD

University lecturer and author of ‘The Happiness Effect: How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost’

…on social media

Can social media make us happier?

Yes, it can, sometimes, if we take the time to notice when it’s making us feel better and when it makes us feel worse. I’ve found that people feel happier on social media when they were using it to connect directly to people in their lives.

How would you sum up our relationship with social media?

Love-hate, emotionally dependent, and obsessive. People talk about social media and their smartphones in the same way they might discuss a romance—probably a rather unhealthy romance.

What can we do to make it better?

I think we each need to pay attention to the different kinds of experiences and feelings we have when we’re on social media and choose which activities to engage in, and which others to try and quit. I think this applies to different platforms as well—some people love Snapchat, whereas Facebook really makes them feel terrible.

How can we be happy online?

There is no one quick and easy way to figure this out. But people need to understand that we’re all in the same boat, trying to make the best of it, and to enjoy it as much as we can.

For more information on how the internet makes us feel visit Internet Happiness Influencers at Carphone Warehouse

Health, Technology, LifeWeb editor