With a steady stream of avocado toast, latte art and vintage Huji filters, Instagram advertises the kind of life to which almost anyone would aspire. If you take social media’s word for it, the world is full of happy, healthy, thriving people taking luxury vacations, getting drinks with lifelong friends and promoting their passion projects online. Even amid a global pandemic and record levels of social isolation, many still fall prey to the glossy perfection of the feed.
But celebrities such as Chrissy Teigen and Dax Shepard have gone in a different direction, inspiring millions of users by sharing both the mundane and raw experiences of real life. Are people happier and more satisfied when they present themselves in a way that feels real or when they share a self-idealized version of their life? In our research, published in Nature Communications, we set out to tackle this question and determine how individuals’ online image actually affects them.
Our starting point was a data set of more than 10,000 Facebook users who had completed a personality questionnaire and volunteered to have their Facebook profile information used for scientific purposes. This unique data set allowed us to compare the way that people see themselves (i.e., their responses to the personality questions) with how they portray themselves to their social network and the world through their posts and the pages they follow (i.e., computer-based predictions of their personality from Facebook posts and pages).
For example, “Jane” might think of herself as an introvert and describe herself as such in a questionnaire. If she posted on social media in the way introverts typically do (e.g., talking about reading, books or computers), her social media authenticity score would be high. In other words, her self-view would match the way she expressed herself to others. In contrast, if Jane were to describe herself as an introvert but post in a way that is typical of extraverts (e.g., talking about parties or weekends out), her social media authenticity score would be low.
Mapping this authenticity score to participants’ level of life satisfaction (i.e., the extent to which they evaluated the overall conditions of their life as positive and desirable) showed that those who expressed themselves in a more authentic—rather than self-idealized—way reported more satisfaction with their life. A clear win for Teigen and Shepard!
Yet one of the questions that came up was: “Is this really true for everybody? Sure, if I am an emotionally stable extravert, posting authentically might be great. It’s who I am but also who everybody else wants me to be. What if I am neurotic and an introvert instead? Would I benefit equally from being my authentic self?” So we went back to our data to test that. As it turns out, this worry was largely unfounded. The extent to which authentic self-expression on social media was related to participants’ life satisfaction did not depend on how socially desirable their personality profiles were. In other words, both extraverts and introverts benefitted equally from being true to themselves.
But does authentic expression actually lead to higher levels of life satisfaction? Or is it the case that people who are more satisfied with their lives find it easier to post authentically? To show that posting in an authentic way was indeed driving well-being, we followed up on our initial study with an experiment to demonstrate causality.
For this experiment, we recruited social media users and randomly assigned them to either post in a way that was authentic (based on their personality) or post in a way that was popular and made them look good in the eyes of others. After a week spent following these instructions, we switched the groups: the people who had initially posted in an authentic way were then asked to post in an idealized way, and vice versa. Supporting our initial finding, we discovered that after posting in an authentic way for a week, participants reported higher levels of positive affect and mood than they did after the week in which they posted to please others.
Our findings can’t speak to the question of whether using social media is better than not using it at all. Abstaining from social media altogether might yield the highest levels of life satisfaction. But our results do suggest that if you use social media regularly, you should try not to fall prey to the perfection—instead just be yourself!