Faking happiness on social media helped me cope with depression

Sometimes social media can be more reliable than our own memories.
Sometimes social media can be more reliable than our own memories.
Image: Reuters/Tony Gentile
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My life looks pretty good on Facebook. If you browsed through my feed, you might see a photo of me drinking wine by my husband in a hot tub, surrounded by a foot of snow. Then there are more blatant self-congratulations: Check out this NPR piece that was filmed during my last mushroom-collecting field trip, or, I was just named a Top Writer on Quora! And if you kept scrolling back a bit, you’d find that I appeared to be having an absolutely awesome time during my most difficult years struggling with depression.

I didn’t have to manufacture good news. Between 2012 and 2014, I got engaged, got married and enrolled in a PhD program. I took pretty pictures and shared happy events. Yet on the inside, I was flailing. Each positive development in my life only intensified my feelings of guilt and worthlessness. Who was I to get a research fellowship? And how wretched was I that even that didn’t make me happy? I had to deliberately choreograph my actions in order to get through daily life, right down to controlling the individual muscles in my face: This is what a smile feels like, right?

Conventional wisdom suggests that image-crafting on social media is a bad thing. When our friends appear to spend their entire lives collecting awards for their critically-adored novels and swimming with dolphins, it’s easy to feel envious and dissatisfied with our own imperfect existences.

But all people struggle in some private corner of their lives. Given that reality, I think we should have empathy for friends who attempt to give themselves a boost with help from likes and sepia filters—not a mean-spirited urge to unmask them. In fact, it can even be worthwhile try a little image-crafting on for size. Sometimes what we post on social media is less about bragging and more about learning to see ourselves in a more positive light.

The personae we create on social media aren’t so different from the ones we tend to embody in real life. Most of us wouldn’t disclose our struggles with alcoholism or family troubles during a casual conversation with an acquaintance. Oversharing this way tends to be perceived as dramatic and off-putting. So instead we keep things light and pleasant, mentioning our achievements and events we’re looking forward to.

On Facebook, I’ve found it helpful to behave on the outside the way I wish I felt on the inside. My cognitive behavioral therapist refers to such tactics as a part of “affect management,” which involves coping skills to disrupt the patterns of thought and behavior that characterize depression, anxiety, and other distressing emotions.

The “fake it til you make it approach” can actually work. Walking with an expansive, happy gait can lift your mood. The mere act of smiling can make people feel happier. And for me, social media was a way to practice the useful skill of putting up a positive front when it was too difficult to do so in person.

Depression devastates your self-esteem. I often stayed in my apartment for days at a time because I was afraid that people outside would see that I had been crying and judge me. I was worried I would be too slow and awkward in conversation if I ran into someone. But Facebook offered me a platform on which I could ensure an acceptable appearance. If I hadn’t had it, I think I would have withdrawn socially even more than I did, which in turn would have made my depression even worse.

And for what it’s worth, my Facebook feed was actually a more accurate record of my life than my own depression-tinged experiences. Depression negatively affects your memory in a number of ways, including making it difficult to recall happy memories in general and especially positive memories about yourself (pdf).

During my worst periods with depression, it was a struggle for me to conjure even a single happy memory. It wasn’t that my good memories were gone—only that it was hard to retrieve them when I was in such a different state of mind. Once, when a therapist asked me to list three times in my entire life that I felt happy, I was forced to go down the calendar of holidays in my head and try to remember what I did for each of them.

But after an emotionally difficult 2014, I was surprised to see that my Facebook “Year in Review” looked pretty awesome. There I was hiking in the Rocky Mountains for my first anniversary. Another photo showed me touring the Grand Temple in Bangkok during a conference. There were lots of beautiful places and genuine smiles.

Looking through the highlights of my year, I realized that it wasn’t my online image that had told a lie—it was my own depressed brain that had been lying to me about what my life was like. There had been so many happy moments that year that I might have otherwise neglected because they didn’t fit with the prevailing tide of my mood (pdf). When your memories and even your subjective experiences are warped by depression, it can be helpful to have a digital record to remind you of the facts.

Skeptics might argue that image-crafting on social media isn’t just putting a positive spin on your life—it’s presenting an inauthentic version of yourself. But the very concept of authenticity is fraught, as professor of organizational behavior Herminia Ibarra writes in the Harvard Business Review. Most of us have not one “true self” but many different selves: We may be more authoritative and serious when we’re at work, a genial goofball hanging out with friends at the pub, and only vulnerable around our very closest and most trusted friends. Our authentic self varies, depending on the situation and the people we are surrounded by. Moreover, as Ibarra points out, “the notion of adhering to one ‘true self’ flies in the face of much research on how people evolve with experience, discovering facets of themselves they would never have unearthed through introspection alone.’”

As I learned in treatment, the belief that each person has a fixed potential beyond which they cannot grow is false and limiting. It’s not being untrue to yourself to try and improve, or to experiment with a new attitude or image. Research has shown that adolescents (especially those that are lonely in real life) improve their social competence by experimenting with their identities online. But teenagers aren’t the only people who sometimes need to experience personal growth. Social media is the perfect scratchpad for anyone’s self-improvement aspirations.

What’s more, the moral panic over authenticity on social media isn’t actually making people act any closer to their “real” selves. A 2014 study published in New Media & Society found that social media users actually have to fake their way toward projecting an “authentic” image: They’ll avoid sharing certain things for fear of sending the wrong message to their friends.

All this suggests that we’re too quick to judge each other on social media—which may reflect how quick we are to feel critical of our own online behavior. After all, we’re only able to be as compassionate to ourselves as we are willing to be toward others.

So if, like me, you could be—ahem—mistaken for a boastful image-crafter, let’s forgive ourselves for wanting to appear happy and well-adjusted to our 1,000 closest friends. It’s only human. And in posting moments that look joyful on the outside, we may be able to work toward feeling that joy from within.