Do you feel a rush every time a Facebook photo or status update gets a new “like” (and a little depressed when your posts are ignored)? The way you answer that question may reveal a part of your personality: people with a true sense of purpose are less likely to be emotionally affected by social media likes than those without, according to a new Cornell University study.
“Purposeful people noticed the positive feedback, but did not rely on it to feel good about themselves,” says Anthony Burrow, PhD, co-author of the study and assistant professor of human development at Cornell University.
Writing in the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology, Burrow and his co-author define a sense of purpose as a “self-organizing life aim that organizes and stimulates goals, manages behaviors, and provides a sense of meaning.” People with a strong sense of purpose tend to agree with statements such as “To me, all the things I do are worthwhile” and “I have lots of reasons for living.”
To see how people’s online lives might be affected by their senses of purpose, the researchers conducted two experiments. They hypothesized that those with stronger senses of purpose would get less of a self-esteem rush from virtual likes, “because they are already guided by a sense of connection with, and service to, others.”
In the first study, they asked 250 active Facebook users from around the United States how many likes they typically got on photos they posted. People who usually got more thumbs-ups also tended to have higher self-esteem—but only among those who had low levels of purpose, based on a six-question test to measure “life engagement.”
For those who had higher levels of purpose, on the other hand, self-esteem remained the same, on average, regardless of how many likes they got.
In the second study, 100 Cornell University students were asked to post selfies to a mock social media site, and were then told that their photo had received either a high, low, or average number of likes. Again, getting a high number of likes was associated with higher self-esteem only among those with less purpose. For those who scored higher in purposefulness, number of likes had no effect on self-esteem.
This makes sense, says Burrow: Purposeful people have the ability to see themselves in the future, he explains, and act in ways that help them achieve their long-term goals. Therefore, they’re more immune to feelings of—or dependence on—immediate gratification.
The findings highlight the protective effects that having a purpose can have on a person’s mental health, he adds. While it’s nice to receive compliments, online or otherwise, it shouldn’t be your main source of pride.
“Otherwise, on days when you receive few likes, you’ll feel worse,” he says. “Your self-esteem would be contingent on what other people say and think.”
Instead, he says, it’s healthier to find confidence in more permanent aspects of your self-worth. “You want to show up with rigidity: ‘I know who I am and I feel good about that.’”
Previous studies have been done on purposefulness and its role on health and self-esteem, but most have looked at it as a buffer against negative or stressful events. Research has suggested it may protect against heart disease and dementia, and may even help people live longer and take better care of themselves as they age.
But this is the first study to show that having a sense of purpose can also blunt the emotional impact of positive events, as well. This is an important part of the discussion, says Burrow, since staying even-keeled—through bad situations and good ones—may be more valuable to health and wellbeing, long-term. It may even help keep us from getting an inflated sense of confidence or reading too much into small victories.
“If a student takes a test, gets a great score, you don’t want him to get a big head and back off—you want him to keep working and do better,” he says. “Just like you want to acknowledge the bad things but not quit, you also want to be able to acknowledge the good things but not get carried away with celebrating.”
So how do you find your sense of purpose, if you don’t feel like your life is particularly worthwhile? There’s no solid research on what works best, but Burrow says that shifting your focus to the future—and really thinking about what you want that future to look like—is a good starting point.
It may also help, he says, to zero in on a hobby you’ve spent a lot of time on, a role model you’d like to emulate, or a moment in your life that’s had a big impact on you, positive or negative.
“In research where people are asked to nominate the source of their purpose, they tend to name one of these three things,” he says.