Does Social Media Really Make Us Happy?

Seemingly every week a new study on the psychological effects of social media is released—then promptly disseminated, and endlessly commented upon, via social media. One proclaims that it’s harmful for our emotional well-being to compare our complex lives to the idealized, highly edited identities we see depicted on our Facebook news feeds. Another concludes that happiness is viral, and that the more positive messages we share online, the more likely we are to feel and express positivity in our offline hours.

One recent study demonstrates that each “like,” comment, and retweet a social-media user receives triggers a small burst of dopamine in the brain’s pleasure receptors, not unlike that caused by smokers inhaling nicotine. Another concludes that a dearth of “likes” can lead to low self-esteem. It’s been long established that social connections and relationships are crucial to psychological well-being, but it’s less clear what it means to translate our selves and relationships to the digital ether—and whether virtual connections translate to what we recognize as authentic happiness.

Ann Scott Dumas, a Minneapolis-based licensed therapist and clinical social worker, says the topic of social media comes up often in her practice. “Social media can fan already existing self-doubt, insecurity, and angst,” she explains, “but it can also lessen loneliness and add meaning and well-being. I’ve had couples react to one another’s social-media presence with embarrassment, outrage, and even the impulse to separate. Others lament that a partner’s preoccupation with social media distracts from time spent as a couple, a family, or on household responsibilities. Yet some use social media as a creative and self-expressive outlet that adds energy and joy and feeds the rest of their lives.”

Dumas concludes that social media offers the same range of challenges and opportunities—for happiness and otherwise—as any other arena for connection with other human beings. “The overall impact depends largely on the maturity of those involved,” she says, “and their willingness to be transparent with themselves and each other about their motivations.”