How to Have a Happy Birthday on Facebook

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Photo-Illustration: Science of Us

It’s an annual ritual by now: the Facebook birthday. Each year, we can expect to log in and see hundreds of notes from people who represent all of the stages of our lives. On my feed, I get messages from high-school classmates, college and grad-school friends, my students, the parents of my kids’ classmates, and my colleagues. Facebook offers this celebration of faux intimacy every year, giving the illusion that we are surrounded by zillions of friends who cared enough to remember our special day, but let’s be honest: Most probably knew it was our birthday only because Facebook told them so. For me, a good portion of those greetings are coming from “friends” I haven’t spoken to in years, and I’d suspect the same is true for you.

More recently, we’ve dropped the ruse of genuine social connection almost completely. I noticed on a recent birthday that now I am not even offered the names of those who wrote on my wall; instead, I just see an icon announcing that 250 people wished me a happy birthday. I have to probe further just to find out who those people were, and consequently, it is tempting to simply offer one post on my wall in reply: “Thanks everyone for the birthday wishes!” Even faux intimacy is gone.

So this year, I decided to do something different. My birthday came right in the middle of the period when I was writing my first book, Popular. In it, I wrote about research that suggests that our social relationships can predict our habits, happiness, and even health over the long term. Those who are popular are likely to live longer, while those who aren’t are at greater risk for cardiovascular disease, inflammatory disorders, and even premature death. Social exclusion can even change the expression of our DNA in surprisingly robust ways, and I was surprised to learn that the deleterious health effects of unpopularity are comparable to smoking.

It might seem, then, that courting popularity through likes and birthday greetings on social media is a lifesaver. But that’s not quite right, because there are actually two different forms of popularity. One reflects the extent to which we are likable, which is important because those who are likable are most likely to have genuine social connections. Our likability is based on how much others genuinely want to spend time with us and feel good because of us. The other type reflects our status, which is a marker for our visibility, influence, and fame. It’s important to recognize the difference. People who are likable enjoy a lifetime of benefits. Status, on the other hand, is a potential risk factor for a wide range of psychological and physical difficulties.

Considering all of this, I thought it time to change how I used social media. There was no sense in logging off completely, because research says that social media actually can be very healthy, depending on how you use it. It offers an efficient approach for sharing good news, and rapid coping support for those who have suffered adversity. It helps those who feel isolated or disenfranchised find peer groups of others with similar interests. Social media may even be a great teaching tool for impression-management skills or efficient communication styles.

The problem is that it is far too easy to get sucked into the trap of digital status seeking. (If you’ve ever deleted a post because you were embarrassed at how few “likes” it got, then you know what I mean.) And, corny as it is, most of us would confess that when we log onto Facebook on our birthday and see those zillions of notifications, it gives us a momentary high. Indeed, research shows that viewing our posts when we have received lots of likes correlates with activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain thought to be associated with pleasure. The powerful pull of social media may have a neurological explanation.

Even so, the research I was reading on the protective power of genuine social connection gave me pause. What if we purposefully refocused our social-media use so it provided more of that? I decided to try.

This year on my birthday, instead of basking in the glow of all the notifications, I wrote a private or customized response back to every single person who sent me a greeting, more than 100 overall. I asked my childhood friends about their lives in the decades since we had spoken. I sent congratulations to my former students on their accomplishments, and let them know how proud I was of their achievements. I told the parents of my children’s schoolmates funny and endearing stories I had heard about their kids, and I expressed appreciation to my colleagues for their work. It took a few hours over a few days to respond to everyone, far longer than writing a single grateful post or repeatedly clicking the “like” button on each birthday greeting. But it added a little humanity back to the annual ritual, revealing the real people behind all those birthday greetings. In each case, it reminded me of our shared experiences, relationships, and mutual affection. It was nice.

Over the subsequent days and weeks, I was inundated with messages from friends who truly appreciated the opportunity to reconnect. We have caught up with each other, not just by reading one another’s curated news feed updates, but by trading messages about both our ups and downs, rediscovering what we had in common, and even occasionally picking up the phone. Seven months have passed, and even still, I get a few messages each week, evidence of new life in friendships that had lain dormant for years.

The results of my personal experiment surprised me, even after I had spent months reviewing research on this exact topic. Psychologists who study loneliness are finding that despite our modern ability to connect with others 24/7, many people are feeling disconnected. In just the past 20 years, the number of people reporting that they feel they have no close confidant has tripled. I don’t mean to suggest my little Facebook experiment as a sweeping, simplistic solution to an enormously complicated social problem. But for me, anyway, it helped — more than I imagined it would.

How to Have a Happy Birthday on Facebook