The week of April 5, 2015
sad illustration

How to pretend to be happy on the Internet

By Selena Larson

My hand paused briefly in the air, and the pen in it twitched. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes but blinked them away so this stranger wouldn’t think I was a basket case and, miraculously, rent me the room in her apartment.

Emergency Contact. That’s the empty box that made me pause. For two and a half years, I had known who that person was; I followed him to San Francisco, where we made our apartment a home. But then things fell apart: We decided that the relationship wasn’t working after months of evenings spent watching Netflix on opposite sides of the couch and going out more with colleagues and friends than with each other. One night we sat down and finally talked about it, agreeing that although we cared about each other, we should move on.

I was officially alone, worried about how I would make decisions on my own after becoming accustomed to making them together. I found myself obsessively refreshing Craigslist and dashing out the door at a moment’s notice in the middle of the day to see an apartment before someone else could snatch it.

I filled out a number of applications. Each one asked for my Emergency Contact. Each time I exhaled slowly, rubbed my forehead, and forced myself to hold back tears and write down the name of my mother instead of the man I still lived with and cared about, even though we’d broken up.

Inevitably I would explain to the Craigslist strangers why I wanted to live with them. Someone asked me why I decided to break up with him instead of work things out, seeming to criticize my incapability of working through a problem and choosing to be alone rather than fighting to be in a relationship neither of us wanted. A woman asked if I ended things because I wanted children and he didn’t—a rather intrusive question from a potential landlord and not at all remotely what had happened.

You can’t be sad if you’re using the Crema filter on a good hair day, right?

“No,” I explained. “Things just don’t work out sometimes.” She shook her head and went to talk to the men who were offering $200 more per month for the apartment than was listed on Craigslist. I walked away.

And when I left each apartment, I would pull out my phone and check Twitter and Facebook, desperately wanting to talk about how hard it was for me to make my way around San Francisco, climbing up seedy stairwells and stepping through bourgeois bedrooms, hoping to find a new place to rest my head. I wanted to complain about how unfair it was that people making so much more money than I was could swoop in at the last minute and rent a place out from under me. I would type 140 characters of truth and delete it.

Instead, I tweeted about the weather.

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My relationship ended on the day of the Super Bowl. When the game started, I had a boyfriend. When the Seahawks threw an interception to finish the game, I did not. At halftime, when Katy Perry took the stage on a mechanical animal under sparkling stars, and Left Shark went down in history as the best part of Super Bowl XLIX, we put our breakup conversation on hold, because I wanted to listen to happy music. Tears fell as I sang along to “Firework.” I checked Twitter. I wanted more than anything to describe the juxtaposition of what was happening on my television to what was happening on my couch. We were in the middle of a conversation describing how happiness can’t be manufactured and simply caring is never enough, while a bombshell celebrity sang about California sunshine and succeeding as a sparkling, magical human being. But I didn’t want to bring my followers down with news of my recent heartbreak, so I tweeted about Katy Perry.

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This went on for weeks: the crushing sadness that comes with loneliness and uncertainty masked by emoticons and mindless tweets about the Crunchies, San Francisco weather, and Galentine’s Day. On Facebook, I posted links to my articles and asked only once if anyone knew someone looking for an apartment. People asked me why I was moving. I didn’t want to tell them the answer, so instead I posted artificially edited photos to Instagram: Freezing cold waves washing over my feet with an uplifting comment about rejuvenation. Or a violent raccoon that almost attacked me while walking back from the bar.

And so many selfies. With friends, alone, completely made up, looking happy. You can’t be sad if you’re using the Crema filter on a good hair day, right? Right? If you type enough exclamation marks and happy-faced emojis, no one knows your heart is broken.

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After years of being online, I’ve crafted a digital persona that reflects only the positive pieces of my personality. People know I’m a writer, I like dogs, and I travel as often as I can. And because I’m so active on the Internet, I have a lot of what you might call “Internet friends,” or people I only connect with virtually but feel like they are a part of an extended group of people I care more about than acquaintances.

It’s uncomfortable to be vulnerable in front of thousands of people, some I barely know and most who know only one small piece of what makes me whole.

They only know the part of me that I choose to show them. Unlike the small handful of other friends I can turn to when I’m overwhelmed and about to cry, the boatload of people I tell everything else to through Facebook and Twitter posts must remain in the dark.

Pretending to be happy on the Internet is exhausting.

The efforts I go through to prune my online profiles are not unique to me. Most of us take multiple selfies, edit tweets before sending them, and share bits of our life that make us look good to outsiders. Though we might develop a fear of missing out (FOMO) by scrolling through our friends’ posts, we are also guilty of only sharing the positive moments in our own lives that contribute to it.

After years of being online, I’ve crafted a digital persona that reflects only the positive pieces of my personality.

Facebook has researched how the information you post affects others. The company ran a controversial study to determine whether the positive or negative posts in your feed might change the stuff you share and found that moods were, in fact, contagious. And according to a Pew Internet study, people on Facebook are less likely to share news and information if they know their friends will disagree with it. So why spread the negativity?

Despite my best efforts, an occasional darkness crept into my posts, and try as I might to self-censor, I couldn’t help but want the people in my life to know what was going on inside my heart. It never went beyond a vague statement that perhaps, for a moment, I wasn’t as happy as usual.

There are a handful of people I’m friends with both online and in real life, many of whom I met through social media, who ran their fingers through my hair and told me things would be OK. They read between the lines of my cryptic social media posts—and lack thereof—and knew that I wasn’t myself. One friend in New Zealand messaged me on Twitter asking if everything was OK because I hadn’t been tweeting as much. I balked at my obvious transparency and explained the situation, equally frustrated and moved that he noticed.

I cried on a few couches and in at least one Thai restaurant. When I called my best friend to commiserate, she invited me over and filled up two large, cheetah-print glasses to the brim with orange cream vodka and handed me a tissue box when a tear slipped down my cheek and landed with a salty plop in the thick, sweet cocktail. Another friend forced me to have pad thai with her after she thought I was suspiciously chipper and held my hand when I admitted she was right: I was scared to fail and crumble into a thousand pieces, stuck between moving on and giving up, so I was telling myself to smile through the pain. While this feigned emotion tricked my friends and followers, it also began to trick me.

Pretending to be happy on the Internet is exhausting.

“Fake it ’til you make it” is a tired piece of advice, but studies show it actually works.

According to social psychologist Amy Cuddy, people’s perception of themselves and others changes based on body language. Things like “power posing” when we don’t feel confident or forcing our mouths into a smile can affect the chemicals in our brain and trick it into thinking our body is feeling something different.

For example, we smile when we feel happy, but also, when we’re forced to smile by holding a pen in our teeth like this, it makes us feel happy. So it goes both ways. When it comes to power, it also goes both ways. So when you feel powerful, you’re more likely to do this, but it’s also possible that when you pretend to be powerful, you are more likely to actually feel powerful.

Tweets were my power poses. Instagram photos were the pen in my mouth forcing me to smile. And as I pretended that the life I built wasn’t falling apart, I slowly began to believe it.

Weeks passed, and I found an apartment. The same woman who sat with me when I teared up while filling out the Emergency Contact eventually invited me into her home. And when I signed the papers and received a key to an apartment that would become my new home, I felt like tweeting how I really felt.


I didn’t have to pretend anymore; those shiny new keys really did warrant a celebratory emoji.

Rearranging your life to conform to new expectations and identities is never easy, and considering how much of my life is spent on social media, figuring out what to share took as much effort as emailing potential roommates. But soon I became comfortable with the new reality, and thinking too hard about what was appropriate to share or not soon became less of an issue.

Tweets were my power poses.

Personal posts will remain scarce on my social profiles, but occasionally I might slip and expose a softer side of myself. If I’m being honest, who I am on Twitter and Instagram is not who I am in real life, and that’s perfectly OK.

As someone who expresses herself through words, refraining from sharing them can be quite difficult. I don’t want the world to know everything about me, just as much as I’m desperate for someone to talk with for hours about nothing and everything. Balancing these feelings and forgoing the momentary support of a favorite or a “Like” was a challenge.

But I realized that pretending can be almost as good as the real thing. It will get you to a place where you feel confident once again, without having anything to hide. The rainbow emojis I share honestly reflect my feelings. And for now, that’s all that matters.


Illustration via MCAD Library/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed