Selfies or Selfless? The 6 Top Habits of the Happiest (& Most Successful) Social Networkers

February 12, 2014

By: Emma Seppala

Originally posted on

Have you ever found yourself on a vacation, a date or a great party with friends and family you love when suddenly, out of the blue, and for no good reason, you develop an irresistible urge to check your Twitter, Facebook, texts or emails? You’re not alone and there’s a reason why. The urge to check social media is stronger than the urge for sex, according to research by Chicago University’s Wilhelm Hoffman.

Why!? The answer is quite simple. We thrive on connection with others. Research shows that connection is what brings us the greatest fulfillment and joy, it is the secret to lasting well-being and even health and longevity.

So the question is: Does technology really help us connect? Is it worth the irresistible urge? In some cases no: one study showed that it actually makes use more lonely. In other cases, the research says yes. So what determines whether technology makes our day or gets us down? It just depends on your social media style. Here’s how to make the best of yours:

Tech Habits for Happiness & Fulfillment

The following social media habits can increase your sense of connection and make you feel more fulfilled. Here’s what research suggests you should be doing:

1) Sending Affectionate Notes Often. A recent research study on couples and texting showed that texting to express affection is associated with higher connection between partners.

2) Contributing Often. A Facebook study showed that, when we are actively sharing and posting, then Facebook makes us happier, presumably because we are reaching out to others and, in turn, receiving feedback from them, creating a two-way street of social connection.

3) Inspiring and Uplifting Others. Why are Facebook pages like PurposeFairyUpWorthy and FinerMinds so popular? Because they aim to uplift, inspire and brighten people’s days. We can choose someone who brings more sunshine into people’s lives. Research shows that altruism and helping others makes us happier, healthier and can even lengthen our lives.

4) Reaching Out, You May Just Save a Life. Dan Caddy, a veteran responsible for a military humor Facebook page called “Awesome Sh*t My DrillSargeant Says” one day received a message from a military servicemember about his buddy who was suicidal and locked in a place by himself with a gun. His cell phone was off so no one could locate him. Caddy posted up a notice that said that all jokes were off and that help was needed. Hundreds of comments flew in through the night, people starting getting in their cars and driving in the direction of the suicidal soldier. By 4am, after 100s of people had joined the effort, the soldier’s commander had been located and his life saved. Dan Caddy has since started a nonprofit called Battle in Distress. To see him speak, see our joint talk at Facebook Headquarters here.  You may think you’re just sitting at home browsing pictures of friends’ dinners, weddings and kids, but you may also be the first to notice that something is wrong, that you can help them in some way and that you can even save a life. A study shows that 1 out of every 4 people has no one to talk to. You never know who could use a kind gesture.

5) Connecting & Being Kind. Together with Arturo Bejar and the Facebook Compassion Team we are working on creating apps and improving opportunites for connection, empathy and kindness through Facebook interactions. Countless acts of violence and bullying can happen on social media, for all to see, and with real consequences that have even sadly led to teens taking their lives. However, we can reach out and do something to help them. Research on compassion shows that helping others and altruism is the best kept secret to happiness and well-being. Facebook presents countless opportunities to check in with loved ones and friends and be there for them if something seems off. Similarly, social media is a place where you can express need for support.

6) Closing Your Computer, Setting Down Your Phone and Looking Someone in the Eyes. Research by Paula Niedenthal shows that eye contact is the most essential and intimate form of connection. Social media is primarily verbal while the root of intimacy is not verbal but is transmitted through the most minute facial expressions (the tightening of our lips, the crows feet of smiling eyes, upturned eyebrows in sympathy or sorry) and posture. Mirror neurons in our brain are dedicated to reflect the actions of others so that we can internally feel what is happening with others – this ability is the basis for compassion and is the reason we feel sorry when someone cries or back away when we sense someone’s anger. How much of this can be transmitted through a text or even a staged selfie? It can’t. Look up and meet someone’s eyes instead of a screen.

Now for the tech don’ts…

Tech Habits That Make You Blue

The following social media habits decrease your sense of connection. Research suggests you avoid:

1) Hiding. True connection thrives on openness and yes, that scary thing: vulnerability (for more on that, see here). Intimacy involves risk which is scary. Many feel that it is safer to hide behind a text. The limited content of a text and the hours of radio silence that sometimes ensue do not increase intimacy. Instead, they can foster uncertainty, insecurity and, ultimately, very little real connection. So don’t use texting as a front, a way to be safe, or to avoid real communication. Many people don’t really appreciate being courted through text anymore, it’s just too easy. For more on that, see this article by Paul Hudson on why texting can make you less manly. Moreover, in online profiles, the portraits we build of ourselves are ideal. It’s easy to hide behind a facade whereas intimacy is fundamentally real: it’s about the good, the bad and the not-so-pretty. Bottom line: Don’t hide.

2)  Blowing the Moment. Intimacy happens in the present moment. It is a state that usually comes after a lot of trust, time, and moments spent together in conversation, contemplation, and affection. If technology is interfering through cell phone use, or an open computer screen with email alerts, texts coming in and Skype calls pinging, you could be blowing moments repeatedly. A set of studies actually showed that the mere presence of a cellphone alone interfered with the quality of connection, feelings of closeness and conversation. This was particularly true during meaningful conversations which are at the very center of intimacy. When partners are each on their phones during dinner checking out their social media, aren’t they missing out on some of the most precious time they have together? Don’t blow the moment on a retweet notification.

3) Texting Your Anger. When it Comes to the Hard Stuff, Don’t Text About it, Talk. A recent research study showed that texting to express frustration to a partner was linked to lower satisfaction. In other words, when it comes to challenges in a relationship, don’t text, talk.

4) Taking a BackSeat.  A Facebook study shows that how we interact on Facebook impacts whether it makes us feel good or bad. When we use social media just to passively view others’ posts, our happiness decreases. Presumably, we compare ourselves to others, feel lonely because we see but don’t interact with others, or simply get lost in others’ (idealized Facebook) lives and forget to enjoy our own.

5) Disconnecting from The Present. A large study showed that we are happiest when we are present, even when we’re doing something we don’t enjoy. If these are times when you always turn to your phone for distraction, consider changing that habit: notice the people around you, be with the situation fully (for more on that and a good laugh, see comedian Louis CK’s awesome Conan O’Brian video on this topic).

6) Disconnecting from Others  Has your first look after waking up from sleep ever been into a screen rather than your partner’s or child’s eyes? Don’t let technology disconnect you. Decades of research show that social connection is crucial for your health and happiness and that lack thereof is worse for you than smoking, high blood pressure, and obesityResearch by Barbara Fredrickson has shown that intimacy happens in micro-moments. Opportunities for connection are everywhere. It doesn’t matter how old we are, life is fleeting and every moment spent with a loved one, every moment spent even connecting with a stranger over a shared laugh at a coffee shop are priceless opportunities. If we are not present because half of our attention is on social media, we are quite simply missing out on those who are with us. Even college students are understanding that it’s an interference with living life, see this great blog post by Maxime Vaillancourt.

7) Disconnecting from Yourself.  Through a constant attention turned into our devices, we hunch over, stop breathing fully, strain our eyes, and forget 99.99% of what our environment has to offer (sunlight, a laughing baby, our own body’s need to stretch). We can forget our own needs as we devote our entire attention outside of ourselves and inside of a virtual world. A new study shows that the more we spend time online, the more time we lose taking care of ourselves.

8) Becoming a Narcissist. As much as we think social media may be about connecting, it ironically can turn us into addictively self-absorbed narcissists. Let’s face it, who doesn’t like attention, compliments or thumbs’ up? Well, social media is a great way to get those (think Likes, Retweets & Favorites).  Use of social media can give you that “ooh I got a “like” buzz, but, ironically, that buzz may also make you more unhappy in the long run. Why? Such pleasure is often short-lived. Self-absorption is an addictive escape into an imaginary connected space that is fundamentally alone, it is the opposite of connection and intimacy. Research shows self-focus leads to anxiety and depression. If you’re using social media to connect, great, if it’s making you more self-focused, get your head out of your phone.

What’s your social media style?

Emma Seppala, Ph.D  is Associate Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. You can view her Google+ author page here