Picture perfect: Social media galleries might hold clues to a happier future

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By Alison Bowen, Chicago Tribune

Instagram feeds — those treasure-troves of personal photo galleries — often are bonanzas of decadent meals, brilliant sunsets and perfectly poised centerpieces. These slices of life might be authentic moments, but often our daily life doesn’t resemble these carefully curated slide shows.

Is it possible to use our posts on Instagram — or any other social media platform — to craft a life more in line with the ideal we show others?

In fact, experts say, our Instagram feeds might serve as clues to what we need more of. Similarly, jealousy or an eye roll toward others’ postings might signal things we wish existed in our own lives.

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Being mindful of all of these things — as well as creating a more authentic portrayal of ourselves online — can boost happiness.

“Remember, nobody’s life looks like their Instagram,” said Kelley Kitley, a licensed clinical social worker whose Chicago private practice is Serendipitous Psychotherapy.

But what you gravitate to online can feed — positively, she promises — into authentic happiness, she said. “I look at Instagram as [a] kind of a scrapbook. We don’t put pictures in a photo album that we dislike.”

Think of your postings as a sort of scavenger hunt to what you enjoy most, or when you feel most content. This often creates a virtual photo feed of the best moments of any given day, fashioning a feed of bliss.

While ideally this is rooted in genuine delight, it also can be motivated by social pressures.

“People feel pressure to be fabulous, to look like they’re fabulous,” said Stacy Kaiser, psychotherapist and editor at large of LiveHappy.com.

When people jot down a status or upload a photo, it might also be an acknowledgment of goals — consciously or not, said Dr. Pamela Rutledge, who teaches media psychology at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif., and directs the Media Psychology Research Center in Newport Beach, Calif.

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“They’re posting their desirable self, or their aspirational self or their ideal self, in a way, so that they are reminded to strive for that,” Rutledge said.

And whether we intend social media to drip into our psyche, what we post and view online affects us, experts say.

Kitley said clients often reference others’ social media posts during sessions. One client, struggling in her own marriage, mentioned a friend’s cheery anniversary message.

“She said it just made her have a pit in her stomach about the choices she’s made,” Kitley said.

So, how to harness social media for a more fulfilling life? Suggestions from the experts:

Use it as inspiration.

“A lot of this posting becomes similar to an idea board,” Rutledge said, “where you’re exploring things that you like … or the kinds of things that you’d like to do. I think we can look at these things as aspirational, and self-exploration.”

Banish the negativity that often accompanies scrolling — the petty jealousy about a friend’s lavish Italy photos, the eye roll over a high school friend’s gushing blog post, the anger because that jerk from college seems to be having more fun.

Kitley said she used to avoid social media, “feeling like it was a really inauthentic capture of what everyone’s lives were like,” she said.

Now, she relishes Facebook posts that inspire her, like a sunrise in her neighborhood she hadn’t noticed because she was too focused on rushing to work. Another photo of a newborn spurred nostalgic, affectionate memories with her four kids.

“I think there can be some real positivity that comes out of it,” she said.

Use it to boost your self-image. Even posting images of yourself at your best can have a positive psychological effect. Rutledge recently researched selfies, finding that most people took a selfie because they really liked something about themselves — a fantastic outfit or fierce hair.

“They’re markers to them of these high points,” she said. “It becomes a very positive, reinforcing thing.”

Blips of posting happy moments can have a cumulative positive effect, too.

“They allow us to document the process of life,” Rutledge said. “This little amount of appreciation, cumulatively, has a big impact. … All of these images we’re posting, these bits and pieces of life, are essentially these moments of gratitude.”

Use it as a map for the future. The things we’re drawn to on social media can be signposts for things that we should incorporate into our lives, Kaiser suggested.

“If you’re finding yourself drawn to pictures of beautiful sunsets, you should be going to more of them,” Kaiser said, adding that social media can be used as a puzzle piece toward pursuing a happier life.

(c)2015 Chicago Tribune

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