How Social Media Helps You Be Your Best Self

The day my sink’s water filter exploded and sprayed the kitchen like Old Faithful, I did a little exploding myself. Four-letter words? I yelled them. Spluttering shrieks? I shrieked them. And then, seconds later, I was laughing.

What had changed? I’d remembered my audience. Not the two cats who stood blinking nearby (though their baffled expressions were priceless), but my hundreds of friends on Facebook. As I imagined posting a joke about the morning’s excitement, I forgot my annoyance at having to dry the room, my clothes and my hair… and discovered, again, my favorite thing about social media.

It can help us be our best selves.

No, I don’t mean the look-at-my-genius-kids and the-chic-sweater-I-crocheted-from-upcycled-dental-floss selves that social media can tempt us to project. I’m talking about our resilient, humor-spotting selves—the selves that, for most people, used to get reinforced only by the thought that children might be watching. Or neighbors. Or God.

But now, on top of those old-school sets of eyes and Eyes, we each have a potential online viewership of hundreds or thousands (or, if we are Justin Bieber, 50  million).

This can be used or abused in many ways, of course. For every post that keeps us on the sunny side of the Internet, there’s a Passive-Aggressive Status Update (“I’ll know you’re really my friend when you share my wife’s cousin’s baby sitter’s Kickstarter link”) or a Vague Tweet for Help (“Feeling so unbelievably sad—please beg me to tell you why”).

Still, it’s cheering to see how often social media users turn life’s lemons into cyber-lemonade—and not just minor lemons like defective water filters. I’ve seen funny and brave and hopeful posts about everything from fender benders to heart attacks.

Are other people as struck by this best-self phenomenon as I am? A survey of my friends suggests they are, and none more than my pal Deborah Skolnik, a writer from Scarsdale, N.Y. “If Facebook didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have gotten as good at reframing negative life events,” she says. And reframe she does. Consider a week when her father was ill with cancer, and Deborah was traveling back and forth to her parents’ house day and night. Her post after one of those marathons was a note—unsent—to her mother: “Dear Mom, when I run over to your house at 2 a.m. because my father is sick, it may not be the best time to tell me my ankles look rough and I seem tired.” The mere act of writing that sentence made Deborah feel better. On top of that, her update, like so many she has shared on Facebook, got a flurry of “likes” and comments, both sympathetic and comic. “Somehow, sharing my pain with people and making it humorous shrank it down,” she recalls.

There’s solid neuroscience behind such moments of online healing, says Adena Shoshan, a witty Facebooker who’s also a psychologist in Rochester, N.Y. “It takes the edge off to put things in a humorous light… and it actually boosts feel-good chemicals in the brain—endorphins, serotonin, dopamine,” she says. “Likes” and positive comments trigger the same reward system.

As if all that weren’t enough, there’s at least one more perk of reframing negatives for an audience—one that plenty of my Facebook friends readily affirm: When you get used to putting an upbeat spin on your life, it naturally affects how others see you. Their perceptions, in turn, affect how you see yourself. As Deborah puts it, “Knowing that people believe this to be you changes you.”

Am I the sort of person who whines when she hurts her back? Who loses her temper when her son (true story) claims he is “too tall to vacuum”? I like to think that remembering my social media audience—and the person that audience thinks I am—has helped me answer such questions with “no.” (Not always immediately, I admit, but at least soon-ish.) This awareness has led, in turn, to more lighthearted Facebook posts that keep the whole feel-good-chemical loop going. And now and then, it’s also led to lucky moments offline.

Hours after I posted about my water-filter explosion, and reassembled and reattached the thing, it exploded again. This time it was afternoon. This time, thank goodness, the ridiculousness of the situation—twice in one day!—hit me at once. No swearing or shouting necessary, I went straight to hilarity. Which was when I realized I wasn’t the only one laughing at my drenched self. My daughter and a school friend had, unbeknownst to me, entered the kitchen.

Sometimes, children really are watching.

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