‘Be yourself’ is both the most useful and useless advice you’ll ever hear. Like a line in a zen poem, its meaning can be interpreted in many ways and can easily cascade into existential dread — well, that’s if you’re an overly-analytical egghead, like yours truly. Regardless of what philosophy says about ‘being yourself’ and ‘authenticity’, from a practical sense, this usually means acting predictably in various situations, uninfluenced by the judgments of others.
Being truly authentic is harder said than done, which is why I often cringe when I hear ‘Be yourself’ (what does that even mean?). But if you’re one of those people who can truly express themselves congruently, both on the outside and on the inside, you’ll be able to reap some psychological benefits. And this includes being authentic online on social media as well, according to a new study published today in the journal Nature Communications.
“In this paper, we were interested in how social media users grapple with the choice to present themselves authentically or in a way that was idealized or socially desirable. In line with studies on authenticity, we expected that individuals who were more authentic on social media would also have greater subjective well-being,” Erica Bailey, Ph.D. candidate at the Columbia University and lead author of the new study, told ZME Science.
Unlike previous studies that investigated the relationship between authenticity and mental well-being, which relied solely on self-reported measures, the new study was observational, involving actual behaviors on social media.
The team analyzed the Facebook profiles of 10,560 users, including activity such as likes and status updates, in order to assess their Big Five personality traits: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.
These predictions were then compared to self-reported personality profiles as established by psychometric tests. The researchers found that authentic self-expression was correlated with higher self-reported levels of Life Satisfaction — a measure of overall well-being.
“A limitation to authenticity research, in general, is that self-reported data (such as asking participants, ‘how authentic are you?’) has been shown to be biased. This led us to develop our “Quantified Authenticity” measure in Study 1. We also tested whether there was an interaction between any of the Big 5 personality traits, such as extraversion, and authenticity on life satisfaction. This would indicate that people with certain personality traits benefit more from authenticity than others. We did not find support for this, rather, the benefits of authenticity appear to be available to all personality types,” Bailey said.
About 80% of all Americans, young or old, use some form of social media, and three-quarters of these users are active daily. It’s no secret that most people choose to share only select things from their life with other people on social media — things such as pictures from exotic vacations, positive life milestones like starting a new school or getting married, and photogenic meals. Our lives on social media are skewed even further by the introduction of face filters and other features that add further artificial layers between our real selves and the life we want to portray on social media.
However, self-idealizing behavior can sometimes lead to internal psychological conflict, causing strong emotional reactions and even anxiety or depression. Some have recognized these problems, advocating for deactivating social media accounts. But this study shows that that’s not really necessary — you can keep yourself sane and emotionally secure, while maintaining social media contacts, as long as you act in a more authentic manner.
“There is a large debate around whether social media is good or bad for us (I’m thinking here of the new Netflix documentary the Social Dilemma). But we have seen many movements such as #DeleteFacebook which are ultimately unsuccessful. It certainly seems that social media is pretty difficult to avoid. Rather than focus on use or not use, we follow with other research which has looked at how we use social media, and what that means for our well-being.”
“My future work continues to look at the broader social context within which individuals create and affirm their identities, and the “aha” moments of feeling like yourself,” Bailey concluded.