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Passively browsing social media is not good for you — and other useful findings on resilience and happiness from the ​Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences.

By Michael Prinzing and Barbara L. Fredrickson, PhD

It’s become clichéd to say that these are challenging times. Everyone knows that people are generally more stressed, anxious, lonely and depressed than usual. And it is entirely reasonable to feel these things, given what’s going on. Yet, despite the circumstances, some people are doing okay. Some people continue feeling love for others, gratitude for what they have and joy in the small things. How do they do that? And how can you do it too?

Research has found that resilient people — people who handle life’s challenges especially well and who quickly bounce back from setbacks — do not somehow avoid negative states, delusionally thinking everything is fine. Rather, even while feeling stress, anxiety, loneliness and depression, the resilient among us also feel love, gratitude, joy and hope. Our team’s research has also shown that resilience is not a fixed trait. It can be cultivated. Like an upward spiral, resilience increases as people experience more frequent positive emotional states. So, how can you experience more of the positive, even during the pandemic?

At the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at UNC Chapel Hill, our team recently collected data from over 600 adults around the United States, asking about their experiences and behaviors from the past day. Here are some of the things the data revealed.

Exercising, as well as self-care (hobbying, relaxing, etc.) or spiritual activities (prayer, meditation, etc.), come with positive emotions. Most people know that these things are important, of course. But they are especially important these days. The tie between time spent on these sorts of activities and positive states was particularly strong for people who felt more of the negative states. So the more stressed, anxious, lonely or depressed you are, the more it matters that you take time to exercise and care for yourself. We have found it useful to put repeating events in our calendars. That way, we’ve always got blocks of time dedicated to these things, and also reminders.

That being said, it’s important not to become too self-focused. Social connection is foundational for a person’s health and happiness. Yet, during this pandemic, the buzzword has been “social distancing.” While social media can be very important for staying connected while physically distanced, it needs to be used properly. Our data showed that the amount of time people spend passively browsing social media (scrolling through feeds, looking for updates) was unrelated to positive states, and strongly linked to anxiety and other negative feelings. If your feeds are like ours, they’re mostly composed of distressing news and politicking. Keeping up with these endless streams is far from uplifting.

On the other hand, people who spend more time actively interacting with others experience more positive and fewer negative emotions. This was true for introverts and extraverts alike, and especially for people living alone. Importantly, it matters how one is interacting with others. Time spent interacting face-to-face or by voice or video call came with more positive emotions, whereas time spent in text-based interaction (email, texting, etc.) did not. Interacting with others doesn’t seem to help much when you can’t actually see or hear the people you are communicating with. This was a useful wake-up call for us. We thought we were doing ourselves good by keeping up via text. But the evidence suggests that this isn’t as valuable as we thought. It’s much harder to establish a meaningful connection with someone via text. And the link between interaction time and positive states is accounted for by the feelings of connection and care for others that are experienced while interacting. Hence, meaningful connections with others must be the priority. It’s a good thing, then, that the humble phone call is making a comeback, and so many video-calling platforms are available.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, regardless of the amount of time that they spent in social interaction, people who went out of their way to help others experienced more positive states than those who didn’t. Crises provide ample opportunities for kindness. You can donate face masks or other equipment to healthcare workers. If you’re healthy, you can donate much-needed blood. One of my young and healthy neighbors is buying groceries and other necessities for our elderly and high-risk neighbors. Such altruistic acts aren’t just good for those receiving help. They’re good for those giving it as well.
We’d like to join those calling for a terminological change. What is needed is not social distancing but physical distancing and social solidarity. During these “challenging times,” it’s even more important than usual that people stay connected and help each other. So to have a better day during the pandemic, it’s vital that everyone MARCH together:

  1. Minimize passive scrolling through social media.
  2. Accept negative emotion.
  3. Really connect with people.
  4. Care for yourself.
  5. Help others.

Barbara L. Fredrickson, PhD, is the Kenan Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts & Sciences’ department of psychology and neuroscience and the director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology, or PEP, lab.

Michael M. Prinzing, a graduate fellow at the Parr Center for Ethics at UNC-Chapel Hill, works in the PEP lab.