Destress: Three Ways to Keep Facebook—and Your Life—in Perspective

Recently, a study published in the journal PLOS One with a sample size likely smaller than your high school graduating class found that Facebook use was associated with declining levels of life satisfaction. This follows on the heels of a German study earlier this year that found that one in three FB users felt worse after using it, pinpointing envy as a major reason. These and other findings (like this one about how FB damages romantic relationships) add to the widespread existential grief among the 500 million people who use FB, and many “I told you so’s” from the millions who do not.

While I have no intention of deleting my FB account based on this or any other study, I know damn well that checking updates can take me down a peg—either with the tedious crawl of inane posts or the sudden, sharp stab of envy.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I was watching my boyfriend try on ill-fitting suits at Jos. A Bank while Kool and the Gang played through tinny speakers. I was hungry, bordering on hangry, and opened up FB to see what was doing. That’s when I read about a colleague’s proud accomplishment, and another friend who was out at some fabulous summer dance party. And I went from feeling just logey to totally lame, provoked into a familiar state of self-loathing by What Other People Were Doing. (The thought process goes something like this: Wow. She’s doing that? Why aren’t I doing that? I should be doing that. I’m so lazy, and so on). (More on how your device is controlling you.)

You can’t blame Facebook for what people do naturally: compare themselves to others, get jealous, anxious, frustrated. Facebook is just human interaction on steroids. You don’t need to stop using it, or feel bad, or fear that it will undermine your happiness forever. You must, however, become aware of your own habits and be honest with yourself about them. “We psychologists refer to the ideal-real gap— the discrepancy between where you want your life to be, the ideal, and where it currently actually is, or the real,” says Andrew Shatté, PhD, Chief Science Officer for meQuilibrium, the first-ever online stress management program.  “The bigger the gap, the bigger the sadness for many people.  Seeing how well your Facebook friends are doing maybe a constant reminder to folk that their lives aren’t living up to their expectations.”

3 ways to keep yourself from spiraling when you OD on FB:

1. Know your triggers. We all have them, and Facebook can’t take the credit. It’s just one big button-pusher. If you’re unhappily single, pictures of lovey couples may make you want to vomit. If you’re unemployed, seeing a post about someone’s recent promotion will make you churn in angst.  If you see someone you never really liked having a great time in St. Bart’s, the universe becomes suddenly unfair (by the way, you should really hide some of those feeds). Facebook reflects back to you not just what other people are doing, after all, but your own feelings about yourself and what you feel or fear you are lacking.

My sister, who consumes FB as a way of life, says that things were rockiest online when she was going through a breakup. “I not only had to unfriend him, but all his friends too so I wouldn’t see him tagged in any photos, otherwise I was constantly reminded of how he was going on happily without me,” she recalls. (Check out this piece in New York magazine about how the social media generation never really breaks up, which points to many similar situations.)

>>Set some rules. If your jealousy wire gets tripped easily and often, then you should limit how often you check—and WHEN. If 10pm on a Sunday is not a happy time for you, then that’s when you should read something else, like a book. I personally subscribe to the FB flash-session: I get in and get out as quickly as possible. The hour-long scroll will suck your soul.  (And of course, no checking while hangry.)

2. Facebook is a fun-house mirror.
Facebook is not a reflection of reality; it’s a warped, carnival view of how people want their lives to look and be. Meaning: It’s highly curated and shows you only what other people want you to know, and more likely, what they want you to think about them—that they’re: funny, brave, lovable, sexy, snarky, and so on. It doesn’t mean they aren’t these things of course, but let’s just say that no one puts anything into a Facebook filter that they don’t want to look better. (Read more about how unseen thoughts/beliefs can make stress worse.)

>> Keep a critical eye and a light heart. To judge your own life by the FB-ready versions you see online is a recipe for despair. Remind yourself that every single post is—literally—saying, “like me.” So, go ahead—like them. Throw digital high-fives everywhere and engage in the fun part—which is, at its best, a community of people really trying to make sense of what they’re doing and who they are. Keep that perspective and you can share without self-loathing.

3. Facebook is a magnifying glass—and a litmus test.
Your reactions to what you see on Facebook are anything but objective. Because if you’re seething with anger after a post by someone you barely knew in college, chances are, this has nothing to do with him; it has to do with you.  Resist the temptation to make huge sweeping assumptions about other people’s lives or to cast yourself in the role of Miserable Outsider. There’s not a person in your newsfeed, not one, who isn’t unhappy about something right now, who hasn’t been frustrated in the past week, or isn’t achingly lonely from time to time. They’re just not posting a picture about it.

>>Evaluate your choices. Rather than worry that other people’s posts are making you unhappy, or that you aren’t “winning” whatever race you think you’re in, look to the choices you’re making in your actual life right now, because therein lies the real issue. Note I said choices—because if you start believing you’re the victim of circumstance, it’s all over. (More on how to break your anger habit.).

Lastly, remember that Facebook was not designed to be a divine oracle; it’s supposed to be fun. It’s your own personalized tabloid news feed, except it’s people spreading gossip about themselves. Which in itself is laughable. Keep that in mind and you’ll be just fine.