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3 Surprising Ways to Feel More Loved

Are you focused on romantic love this Valentine’s Day? If so, you’re missing an opportunity! Building stronger connections with those around us can lead to a happier, healthier, more successful, and easier life. Our relationships help us live and work from our sweet spots by bringing us both strength and ease.

Love and the similar emotions that we experience when we feel connected socially—like affection, warmth, care, fondness, and compassion—are a powerful force for a rich and rewarding life. In Love 2.0 author Barbara Fredrickson’s words:

Love is our supreme emotion: its presence or absence in our lives influences everything we feel, think, do, and become. It’s that recurrent state that ties you in—your body and brain alike—to the social fabric, to the bodies and brains of those in your midst. When you experience love . . . you not only become better able to see the larger tapestry of life and better able to breathe life into the connections that matter to you, but you set yourself on a pathway that leads to more health, happiness, and wisdom.

Similarly, the longest running study of human development, The Harvard Grant Study, makes it clear that “the most important influence, by far, on a flourishing life is love,” as one of the researchers behind the study, George Vaillant, put it in Triumphs of Experience.

So if our happiness and our success are best predicted by the quantity and quality of our relationships with others, the question remains: How can we increase the amount of love we get in our lives? Here are a few of my favorite ways to feel more connected:

  1. Talk to strangers — or at least smile at the barista.

A half dozen recent studies demonstrate the power that a simple positive interaction with a stranger has to make us happier. In one study, researchers randomly assigned volunteers to talk to the stranger who sat down next to them on the train during their morning commute. Pretty much no one thought that they were going to enjoy giving up their morning solitude to make small talk with someone they didn’t know and would probably never see again. But guess what? The volunteers enjoyed their commute more than the people in the study who got to read their books and finish their crossword puzzles in silence. What’s more, not a single study participant was snubbed. Other research indicates that the strangers being chatted up in public spaces similarly think they won’t want to talk, but then end up enjoying themselves.

The takeaway is that often the easiest way for us to connect with others is to slow down just enough to make eye contact with someone, smile, and, if we’re feeling brave, start a little conversation. Research shows that even just acknowledging someone else’s presence by making eye contact and smiling at them helps people feel more connected.

  1. Just send loving thoughts to others.

When Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues want to study what happens when people increase their daily diet of love, they simply ask people to do a loving-kindness meditation once a day. This is a private, quick, no-contact-with-others way to give. Also called metta, loving-kindness meditation is the simple practice of directing well wishes toward others. Loving- kindness meditation isn’t complicated — it really isn’t anything more than using your imagination to send love and well wishes to others.

This stuff is more effective than Prozac for many people.If you are going to do only one thing today to bring more love and connection into your life, I recommend you do this. 

Even if you aren’t likely to sit in meditation everyday sending good thoughts to yourself and others, you can use metta throughout the day as a tactic to increase your feelings of well-being, compassion, and connection. Perhaps put a sticky note on your bathroom mirror or refrigerator door or car dashboard — wherever you tend to be most exhausted or overwhelmed or isolated — to remind you to pause and cultivate a loving thought or two.

  1. Master the most important relationship skill in the history of the universe.

Perhaps the most useful skill we can master for building strong connections with others is the ability to deliver an effective apology. When a relationship starts to break down, the best repair, bar none, is almost always an apology.

Think about it: if a relationship is dented or sputtering, someone probably made a mistake. Perhaps it was a benign comment (a well-meaning but poorly understood suggestion) or maybe it was more toxic (you got caught in a lie, or didn’t follow-through on a commitment).

People make mistakes in relationships all. the. time. Not just bad people, or weak people. All people. Our mistakes are what make us human. And even when we don’t think that we’ve made a mistake, other people will often find errors in our ways. We human beings are walking offenders.

So if we’ve done something that offends someone else — whether or not we feel we are to blame — we apologize?

YES.

I believe that it almost always serves our highest good to apologize if we’ve hurt or offended someone else — even if we think the offended person’s anger is unjustified, or if we have a perfectly good excuse for what happened. Or if our intentions were all good.

But all apologies aren’t created equal, of course. (All parents have watched children spit out a forced “SORRY!” and known it was worthless.) So what makes a good apology? After studying that question extensively, Aaron Lazare developed perhaps the most robust criteria to date for effective apologies. Drawing on Dr. Lazare’s work, I’ve created this three-step method for making a good apology.

This post is a little tidbit from my latest eCourse: The Science of Finding Your Flow: How to Create Happiness and Maximize Productivity (launching later this Spring) . If you’re invested in bringing more ease and flow into your life this year, you will love this eCourse! And if you pre-order this eCourse now, you’ll get a FREE hardcover copy of my book The Sweet Spot and $50 off! This is a steal, friends. Plus, if you want to, you’ll get to help me test out the content before the launch. Click here to pre-order The Science of Finding Flow eCourse.

Image by Benjamin Lehman

Happiness Tip - Go Easy on Yourself - Christine Carter

Happiness Tip: Go Easy on Yourself

Fun fact: Most people are starting to falter at their New Year’s Resolutions by now.

If you are anything like me, setbacks, lapses, and mistakes can come with a fair amount of self-flagellation. Somehow I think that if I’m really hard on myself, I’ll be less likely to make the same mistake again, or I’ll motivate myself towards better performance in the future. Admitting our failings does not need to come with commensurate self-criticism, however.

Here’s why: Self-criticism doesn’t work. It doesn’t actually motivate us. Instead, self-criticism is associated with decreased motivation and future improvement.

Self-compassion — being warm and supportive towards ourselves, and actively soothing ourselves–does help matters when we make a mistake or the going gets rough. It leads to less anxiety and depression, greater peace of mind, and, importantly, it makes us feel more motivated to make the improvements we need to.

Take Action: The next time you flub-up, take a deep breath and soothe yourself like you might a small child: use kind, reassuring words to ease yourself out of a stress response (which will only make matters worse).

Photo courtesy of Matty Ring.

Are You Setting the Right Goals?

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Could you be setting better ones?

I’ve always found the idea of setting goals appealing. But—and I hate to admit this—it has been years since I set real goals for myself, personally or professionally. And by “years,” I mean decades.

Why set goals?
Hundreds of studies have shown that goal setting is a way to improve performance as well as happiness and well-being.

A memorable survey of graduates from Harvard’s MBA program found that 10 years after graduation, those who set goals for themselves were earning, on average, twice as much as their classmates who didn’t set goals. Even more astounding: The 3 percent of graduates who had written out clear goals were earning, on average, 10 times as much as the rest of their class.

How to set goals that work
While it’s easy to spit out a goal or two, it is much harder to settle on goals that will actually help us become lastingly happier and more successful. I teach my clients what I call the “WAPPER” method. This type of goal-setting is based on my reading of related research (particularly related to motivation, with a little organizational theory thrown in), but it adds a twist to the common goal-setting method I was taught in the business world.

WAPPER stands for:

Wants & wishes

Actions & circumstances

Problems & obstacles

Plans

Evaluation & measurement

Remind & revise

Here’s how to use this goal-setting method to get what you really want. (A template for this goal-setting method that you can download or copy is here.)

W: Know what you WANT to feel.

This first step is the most important one—and it is the step that we most often skip. Before you start to formulate your goals, ask yourself NOT what you want to achieve, but what, in your heart of hearts, you WANT TO FEEL. Shooting for the feeling-state that you want more of (maybe you want more happiness? confidence? significance?) will take you down a different path than setting your sights on a particular achievement. Emotions are more motivating—and far more fulfilling—than an achievement goal in the long run.

Here’s an example. A coaching client of mine (let’s call her Sam) wanted to grow her online business, and she asked me for help setting some goals to do that. Instead of starting with revenue growth objectives (or more traditional business-y goals), we started with how she wanted to feel when she’d successfully grown her business.

Her response was that she wanted to feel more influential and more confident about the work she was offering the world, and she wanted to feel a greater sense of significance in the coming year.

A: Identify the actions that most often lead you to feel what you want to feel.

Sam reported that she feels most influential, confident, and significant when she is teaching others in person. (An interesting observation, given that her online business tends to prevent her from teaching in person.)

P: Identify the PROBLEMS that are likely to prevent you from feeling what you want to feel.

For Sam, a major conflict revealed itself: She feels most influential, confident, and significant when she is teaching . . . but she was thinking of spending less time teaching in order to grow her online business. So her biggest problem or obstacle to how she wants to feel is that she might not have enough time to teach in the coming year.

Conflicts like these don’t always arise, of course, but here we can see what might have happened if Sam had just set a traditional goal aiming to grow her online business (e.g.,“Grow the product sales division of my online business by 15 percent by January 1st.”). Instead of making her feel more successful—given that success to Sam is defined by feelings of confidence, significance, and influence—such a goal would likely make her feel more stressed. Some of the greatest disappointments of my life have come from reaching an achievement goal, only to wake up the next day with the sinking feeling that I’d been pursuing the wrong thing all along.

Sam’s situation aside, most obstacles are more straightforward. When my daughter, Molly, was setting goals for the coming school year, for example, one thing that she wanted to feel was organized; a behavior that leads her to feel more organized is to clean out her binder every Friday after school. A predictable obstacle to this behavior? When she has a friend over after school on Fridays, she never wants to take the time to clean out the binder.

Another common problem is that we don’t yet have the right skills or habits to easily get what we want. Molly also wants to feel “engaged and confident when studying and doing homework,” but she was lacking some basic study skills, like knowing how to plan out what homework to do when, or how to study for a 7th grade humanities test. Those things also went on the “problems” list.

If you are a particularly optimistic person, you might be tempted to skip this step, preferring instead to think positively and “reach for the stars” while seeing the glass as “half full.” (I should know; I used to have a blog with that title.) Positive thinking has its benefits, but when it comes to setting goals, fantasizing about your success can trick your brain into feeling like you have already achieved the goal—which tends, ironically, to make us less motivated.

All of this is to say: Understanding the obstacles and problems you are likely to face—something researchers who study motivation call “mental contrasting”—is critical for achieving your goals.

P: Make PLANS for overcoming your problems and obstacles.

Look at your list of problems. For each straightforward obstacle, make a specific “if X, then Y” plan for each. For example, Molly’s plan for her Friday afternoon obstacle was this: “IF I have a friend over on a Friday afternoon, THEN I will set an alarm on my phone to remind me to clean out my binder on Saturday morning.”

More complicated problems, like Sam’s, require making plans around the specific behaviors that lead to the emotions that we want to feel. Sam made specific plans to take on more students in the coming year—to teach more instead of less.

And don’t forget to make specific plans for acquiring the new skills or habits you might need. Molly made plans to work with a very organized and studious college student after school several days a week to develop new study skills. Studies in many different fields suggest that we tend to be more successful when we focus on “learning goals” rather than specific achievements.

E: Decide how you will EVALUATE your success. You thought this was going to be all touchy-feely and emotional, but the old adage is true: What we measure we improve. So develop a method to track the action steps and behaviors that will lead to how you want to feel. For example, Molly tracks things like “Cleaned out my binder this week.”  Apps such as “Way of Life—The Ultimate Habit Maker & Breaker” and “TracknShare” make setting up an evaluation system easy.

R: Devise a way to REMIND yourself what you really want to feel, and REVISE your plans—and the behaviors you are tracking—when they are no longer leading to the feelings you desire.

Please try out this WAPPER worksheet, and let me know how it works for you. Happy planning!

Photo by Bronski Beat

Happiness Tip - Trade Expectations for Gratitude - Christine Carter

Happiness Tip: Trade Expectations for Gratitude

Feeling frustrated or disappointed?

It isn’t that we shouldn’t have high expectations, or that we shouldn’t feel hurt when someone lets us down. But one of the best ways to recover from disappointment is to notice what actually is going well in our lives.

Gratitude is one of the most powerful positive emotions we have — we have reams of research indicating that gratitude is a part of the happiness holy grail. Compared with those who aren’t practicing gratitude, scientists have found that people practicing gratitude:

  • Are considerably more enthusiastic, interested, and determined;
  • Feel 25% happier;
  • Are more likely to be both kind and helpful to other.

And that’s not all. Gratitude studies report long laundry lists of the benefits of gratitude. For example, people who jotted down something they were grateful for online every day for just two weeks showed higher stress resilience and greater satisfaction with life, reported fewer headaches, and a reduction in stomach pain, coughs and sore throats!

Gratitude is a SKILL, like learning to speak German or swing a bat: can be taught, and it needs to be practiced consciously and deliberately. Yet, unlike learning German, practicing gratitude can be blissfully simple: just count the things in your life that you feel thankful for.

Here are a couple of ideas to get started:

  • Keep a gratitude journal.
    This can be a handwritten journal or kept online (there are loads of web-based versions) or even just jotted down in your calendar. I’m not a big journaler, but I’m thinking about using Facebook as a gratitude journal. Every day I’ll record something that makes me happy, something I’m grateful for — either by typing it in or by taking a picture. I can then share my gratitude with my family. (Though I do wonder if this will be annoying to people, or if I’ll get distracted by other people’s posts. Maybe Instagram? What do you think?) As an alternative, try texting your appreciation to people who’ve helped you out.
  • Start a tradition of writing “appreciations” on place cards at family dinners or on holidays.
    Depending on your comfort level for group sharing, make place cards for each person present, and then ask people to write a few adjectives that describe what they appreciate about one another on the inside of the place cards. Don’t ask people to write something about everyone present unless they want to — you don’t want to force the exercise. But do make sure that everyone has at least one thing written inside their place card, so that during the meal you can go around the table and share appreciations.

Join the Discussion: What are you grateful for? How do you express your appreciation? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Happiness tip - Just Eat - Christine Carter

Happiness Tip: Just Eat

I know, I know — you’re thinking this happiness tip is pretty bogus. I mean, who doesn’t feel happier when they eat? Am I really advocating food-as-joy?

Maybe: It’s all in how food is consumed. How often do you eat breakfast standing up or in the car? Do you eat lunch in front of your computer, at your desk, or buried behind a book? How often do you just eat, without also doing something else?

In the wild (or, say, kindergarten), we mammals naturally take breaks to refuel with a snack or a meal. Don’t squander this natural rest period by wolfing down your lunch while you read your email, or by sipping a latte while driving to work and calling that breakfast. Practice eating mindfully, paying attention to your food and the people you are with. Notice what you are eating and how quickly or slowly. Breathe. Relax. You will feel more calm and content.

Take Action: If you rarely just eat without also doing something else, start small. Perhaps commit to savoring your food for the first 5 bites, or maybe 5 minutes of every meal. Or to eating one lunch a week by yourself, not at your desk, with no distractions.

Join the Discussion: When is it most difficult for you to stop multi-tasking during meals? What techniques work for you? For example, I have a hard time sitting down during breakfast with my kids — I’m always tempted to rush around helping them make their lunches while I drink a smoothie standing up. I’ve solved this by allowing 15 minutes longer than I really need, so that there is nothing for me to do but sit down and have breakfast with my family.

Photo courtesy of Gexydaf.

My Best Happiness Advice - Christine Carter

My Best Happiness Advice (Video)

I’ve made a lot of happiness mistakes. I know you will make some of those same mistakes. But there are certain things I’ve finally learned that I hope you learn earlier than I did.

For starters, the best way to be happy is to make kindness the central theme in your life. Usually we think that happiness comes from getting what we want. But what I know now is that happiness comes not so much from getting, but from GIVING. It turns out that happiness usually doesn’t come when we’re thinking about ourselves, or about what we want.

I’ve made a lot of happiness mistakes. I know you will make some of those same mistakes. But there are certain things I’ve finally learned that I hope you learn earlier than I did.

For starters, the best way to be happy is to make kindness the central theme in your life. Usually we think that happiness comes from getting what we want. But what I know now is that happiness comes not so much from getting, but from GIVING. It turns out that happiness usually doesn’t come when we’re thinking about ourselves, or about what we want.

So when you are feeling down, or disappointed, the best way to get your happiness mojo back is by helping someone else.

The second thing is that to be happy, we need to let ourselves feel what we feel. We live in an age of anxiety, and when we feel stressed out (or sad, or disappointed) our world offers us a host of ways to numb those negative feelings, to not really feel them. We can spend hours on Facebook avoiding our feelings. Or we can have a cocktail to “take edge off” our fears. Or we can eat that whole pan of brownies. The problem is that when we numb unpleasant feelings, we numb everything that we are feeling.

So to honestly feel the positive things in life — to truly feel love, or joy, or profound gratitude — we must also let ourselves feel fear, and grief, and frustration. Your emotions are how your heart talks to you, how it tells you what choices to make. If you want to be happy, you need to practice feeling, to practice listening to your heart. This is the way to know who you are and what you want.

Finally, to be happy we need to forget about achieving, and instead focus on the journey. Many of your peers will spend their time striving for more: more money, more stuff, a bigger house, a faster car, more popular or important friends, more prestigious jobs. But when they arrive wherever they have been working so hard to get to, odds are, they’ll feel let down. (And, to be honest, it’s usually worse than just feeling let down. They may find, after working 12 hour days year after year, that despite their awards and achievements, they wake up one morning to see in the mirror an exhausted and unhappy person fast-tracking it to old age and loneliness.)

I know from experience how easy it is to think thoughts like , “If I could just earn more money…” Or, “If I could just live in that city…” or “if I could just get into that school… THEN I could be happy.” But when we think things like that, we’re almost always wrong about what will make us happier. Instead of wishing you were somewhere else, enjoy where you are. Right now. You are always already right where you need to be.

As Katherine Center once said: “You are writing the story of your only life, every single minute of every day.”

My greatest hope for you is that you are writing a story in which you can experience great gratitude, and profound compassion. I hope you are writing a story in which you are happy.

Special thanks to Marielle and Macie, who put together this video; to Blake Farrington who got it started; and to Gonzalo Brito, who played the guitar piece in the background.

Break yourself off a piece of happiness - Christine Carter

Break Yourself Off a Piece of Happiness

To celebrate the International Day of Happiness this past Friday, I participated in an interview with Snapchat Stories. Enjoy!

Snapchat: What’s one of the biggest myths about happiness?
CC: We think that happiness is a personality trait, when really it is better thought of as a skill, or a set of skills that we can learn and practice. Obviously we do have genetically-based personality differences, but I think of happiness like learning a language. Some people pick up languages really easily — especially those taught when they are young. Other people have to do more work to speak and write well. But either way, we all need to be taught the basic “grammar” and “vocabulary” of happiness, and we need to practice those things in order to become fluent.

How often should a “normal” person feel happy?
There is no normal; life can be difficult, and when it is, few people feel happy about it. We do know that once a person’s ratio of positive to negative exceeds about 3:1 (three positive emotions or experiences to every one negative) their whole system seems to change — they are said to “flourish.” Flourishing people, who represent less than 20% of the population, are more creative and resilient in the face of difficulty.

Are people generally happier as children or adults?
Happiness levels change throughout the life course. Most research shows that people’s happiness tends to follow a U-shaped curve: it is highest when they are young, and it tends to bottom out between our late 30s and early 50s. Fortunately, happiness levels tend to rebound again around age 60.

Is there a “fake it ’til you make it” factor to getting happy?
“Faking it” only works when we aren’t pretending or performing. Facial expression alone, without first feeling a corresponding emotion, is often enough to create discernible changes in your nervous system. When you lift the corners of your lips and crinkle your eyes, for example, after a couple of minutes your body will release the feel-good brain chemicals associated with smiling. But pretending to feel something that we aren’t makes us feel worse; research shows that inauthenticity is corrosive to our health, especially our cardiovascular system. One way to “fake happiness” fairly effectively, though, is to put a pencil between your back teeth for a few minutes in order to activate your smile muscles. (A word of warning: I’ve found that this technique works for lightening up my mood, but it does make me drool.)

Can money buy happiness? At least a little bit of it?
The old adage is mostly true: Money doesn’t tend to buy much happiness (after our basic needs are met). In our culture, we tend to confuse real happiness — profound joy and authentic contentment — with pleasure and gratification. Money does buy pleasure, but it takes a whole lot of money to increase your overall happiness level just a little tiny bit. And money really can’t buy meaning or fulfillment.

Here are 5 quick (and free) things you can do to find more happiness today:

  1. Smile at the barista and strike up a short conversation. Or with the people sharing your elevator. Or with the crossing guard.
  2. Increase your ratio of positive to negative emotions by watching a silly YouTube video, expressing gratitude to someone, or reading something inspiring. (Yes, you get credit for watching funny animal videos!)
  3. Take a good old-fashioned recess in the middle of the day. For every 60 to 90 minutes that you focus, take a 10 to 15-minute break. Go outside and play! Or at least sit inside and daydream.
  4. Repair a minor crack in an important relationship. Call your mom and invite her to lunch, even though your last conversation with her was tense. Find something nice to say to your spouse, even though he can be frustrating.
  5. Establish a tiny happiness habit. Do a daily crossword puzzle if that does it for you. Read a favorite magazine at lunchtime. Throw the ball for your dog every morning. What would make you really happy if you did it every day?

Photo courtesy of José Manuel Ríos Valiente.

A Lesson on Focus


Photo by Michael Dales

I’m naturally very distractible and messy – a “big-picture thinker, but not so much a detail person,” as my father would euphemize when I was younger. I’m often tempted to work on a lot of things at once, inefficiently, and without finishing much. This tendency can wreak havoc on my ability to get anything done as a writer.

I work from home most of the time, so the pull of all the things that I could be doing instead of writing is usually more powerful than any intention I have to just focus.

(Some of the things that tempted me this morning: the laundry, the breakfast dishes that didn’t fit in the dishwasher, chatting with my neighbor, retrieving the dog’s ball from behind the sofa so he stopped barking at it, e-mail, texts, a quick thank-you note, bills, yesterday’s mail, and chatting with my husband on the phone.)

I had to carefully construct a work structure for myself that would support focus rather than allow me to hop from one easy but not important task to another.

Forcing myself to stop multitasking was a process. I had to create a formal ritual to get myself into the zone. Here it is:

As I’m brewing myself a second cup of coffee or tea, I take a quick peek at my calendar and e-mail on my phone. Is there anything urgent? The idea isn’t to respond to e-mails; it’s a check that keeps me from worrying while I write that I should have checked my e-mail, and keeps me from wondering if there is anything on my calendar that I should be preparing for. Then I head to my office, with my coffee and a full glass of water. (I’ve also had a snack and used the restroom. I’m like a toddler going on a car trip.)

I do a quick cleanup, removing yesterday’s coffee cup from my desk, closing books left open, putting pens back in their place. I put all visual clutter in deceivingly neat piles. I put my phone in do-not-disturb mode, and close any unnecessary applications or windows that are open on my computer. I launch Pandora and choose the “listen while writing” radio station I’ve created (mostly classical piano because it doesn’t distract me like music with lyrics does). I tell Buster, my trusty canine colleague, to go to his “place” – a bed right next to me where he’s trained to stay while I work.

I write at a standing desk that has a small treadmill under it. When I’m ready to start writing, I start the treadmill. Walking slowly while I work has a lot of positive outcomes; one of them is that it more or less chains me to my desk. Finally, I launch the app 30/30, which times my writing and break time.

At first, I actually felt guilty for carving out such dedicated time to focus on my writing. Perhaps that sounds ridiculous to you – it’s my jobafter all! But honestly, I felt like I should be more responsive to my colleagues’ e-mails throughout the day, and I shouldn’t be creating the scheduling nightmares that blocking off dedicated work time does because it’s basically at the same time every day. It’s very hard to schedule a meeting with me in the morning, when I do my best writing, or in the afternoon, when I pick up my children from school. This means that it’s pretty hard to get me to go to a meeting.

So how did I ultimately let go of the guilt? Instead of trying to conform to the norms of the ideal office worker (which made me feel a little terrified anytime I was straying from that path), I started to see myself as an artist. I read everything I could about other writers’ and artists’ work habits, and talked to a half dozen successful writers about how they get things done. Guess what?

They have writing rituals just like the one that I set up. Seeing myself as a part of their tribe made the whole thing easier for the part of me that is people pleasing and wanting to conform with what people see as hard-working.

Do you struggle to block off dedicated time to write? If so, I welcome you to join my tribe.

is-your-phone-actually-controlling-you-christine-carter

Is Your Phone Actually Controlling YOU?

Social media can stress us out — or help us feel love and connection. The key is to understand their impact and use them strategically.

The Pew Research Center released a report on social media use and stress, and subsequent media coverage has boiled its message down this kind of headline: “Using Facebook and Twitter a lot can actually decrease stress,” to quote the Washington Post.

Wishful thinking. Pew surveyed the associations between people’s self-reported social media use and how stressful they perceive their lives to be, but it did not attempt to determine how Internet and social media use affects stress levels.

The Pew report did find that “women who use Twitter, email and cellphone picture sharing report lower levels of stress.” But we have no idea if there is a cause-and-effect relationship. Perhaps the low-stress women Pew surveyed have more leisure time, which both lowers how stressful they perceive their lives to be, and also gives them more time to send their friends pictures from their smartphones, and to post to Twitter.

Or perhaps these women were feeling the positive effects of communicating with friends. That would be consistent with 150 years of research that has found a person’s well-being is best predicted by the breadth and depth of their social ties.

Knowing this, we can ask how social media can strengthen our real-life relationships. Perhaps sending your sister photos makes you feel closer to her, especially when she comments and sends photos of her own in return. Plenty of research would back up the notion that the love and closeness you feel during this picture exchange really could lower your stress in a measurable way. Many people report a similar positive effect from posting on Facebook. The same goes for reading an article posted to Twitter that makes you feel engaged and curious, or viewing a particular artist’s photos on Instagram that inspires you. These are all instances where social media can foster positive emotions — and positive emotions reduce stress, help us relax, give us energy, and lend our lives meaning and fulfillment.

On the other hand, you might notice that your email or social media use is making you feel bad about yourself. Comparing ourselves to others, while natural, can make us feel envious and unhappy. Does social media use make you feel like you aren’t measuring up? Or does it make you feel isolated? Neither of these feelings will make your life better.

And, as so many people know, constantly checking email or feedback status throughout the day can exacerbate your stress. When researchers Elizabeth Dunn and Kostadin Kushlev regulated how frequently research participants checked their email, for example, those limited to checking their email only three times a day (vs. an average of 15 times) were less tense and less stressed overall.

Take Action: 
Social media does have the power to make us miserable and stressed out — or to help us feel love and connection, joy and gratitude, inspiration and curiosity. The key is to understand how these technologies influence our emotional lives, and learn to use them strategically. To reap the benefits of electronic connection, try these 3 strategies today:

Strategy #1: Check email intentionally, not compulsively. Designate three specific times today that you’ll read and respond to your email, and keep your mail application closed (and alerts off) at all other times.

Strategy #2: Decide on a few places where you will ban your smartphone use. (Consider starting with the dining room table, your bed, and the bathroom.) If you don’t have your phone in the same room, you’ll be a lot less tempted to check it.

Strategy #3: Use social media and email to strengthen your real-life relationships. For example, each morning, send an email telling someone what you really appreciate about them.

Join the Discussion: What tactics do you use to make sure that you aren’t controlled by your smart phone? Share your thoughts in the comments below!