February 22, 2023
A new study from UC Berkeley shows the power of seeking inspiration. Daily interaction with inspiring content on Pinterest helped Gen Z college students to buffer against negative conditions like burnout and stress—even when they were studying for stressful college exams.
UC Berkeley's researchers conducted an “intervention” study that measures the impact of specific habits on wellbeing. This scientific, experimental research shows that an inspiration intervention can help people preserve capacity for positive emotions. We’re sharing the full results of the study here, in partnership with UC Berkeley’s research team.
Pinterest partnered with UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center to test the relationship between inspiration and wellbeing. Using an intervention study focused on inspiration, we found that active engagement with content on Pinterest buffers against rising burnout, stress, and social disconnectedness among Gen Z college students in the US. Moreover, we found similar results in seven additional countries (total n = 418). In other words, in challenging times, seeking inspiration can preserve your capacity for positive emotions, boost your feelings of social connection, and even prolong your sleep.
Together with the Berkeley team, we designed rigorous, experimental research examining causal links between inspiration and wellbeing. The operational team consisted of one Pinterest Researcher (Daron Sharps, PhD) and two Berkeley PhD candidates, with oversight and guidance from Principal Investigator Dacher Keltner. All procedures had oversight from UC Berkeley’s Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects. Moreover, all measures we report are well-established in the academic literature and used in hundreds of peer-reviewed journal articles (ex: “burnout” refers to the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which has over 20,000 citations).1
Participants came to the social science lab at the Berkeley Way West building for entrance (Day 1) and exit (Day 14) surveys. Participants were randomly sorted into one of two conditions for the two weeks in between their surveys.2 Participants either: used Pinterest for 10 minutes per day (“Pinterest condition”); or solved online jigsaw puzzles for 10 minutes per day (“control condition”). For the Pinterest condition, we simply instructed study participants to find things on Pinterest that inspired them. This was a self-directed exercise, without restrictions on product experience or content. In comparison, the control condition is interpreted as a neutral, baseline experience (i.e. online, visual, engaging), so that we can look at the true difference Pinterest makes.
Importantly, we tested the effectiveness of the inspiration intervention among university students who were preparing for finals. This was not exactly a low-stress time!
Participants were primarily Gen Z (average participant age = 21). We also collected similar data with Gen Z participants in additional countries (Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and the UK).3
First, we found that over the course of the study and moving toward the students’ final exam period, self-reports of burnout and anxiety increased. We even saw this in physiological measures of stress, like vagal tone. Vagal tone is a measure of the activity of the vagus nerve, and indicates someone’s stress level. Low vagal tone is associated with poor emotional and attentional regulation. As students got closer to exams, their vagal tone dropped.4
However, in students assigned to the Pinterest condition, we found that just 10 minutes a day seeking out inspiration buffered against the rising burnout, stress and social disconnectedness we could see in their vagal tone data. This had consequences for emotional wellbeing, physical health and social connectedness.
Active engagement with inspiring content on Pinterest mitigated the consequences of burnout on people’s daily positive emotion, preserving their capacity for feeling good. In other words, despite being burned out, participants in the Pinterest condition (red line in chart below) still had capacity to feel contented, grateful and compassionate. In the control condition (blue line in chart below), burnout swamped those emotions.5
Active engagement with inspiring content on Pinterest mitigated the consequences of physical stress on people’s daily positive emotion, preserving their capacity for feeling good. In other words, despite experiencing physical stressors like headaches or trouble sleeping, participants in the Pinterest condition (red line in chart below) still had capacity to feel contented, grateful and compassionate. In the control condition (blue line in chart below), physical stress pushed those emotions aside.6 Those who actively engage with inspiring content on Pinterest also reported sleeping 7% longer.
After two weeks of inspiration, social wellbeing increased for people in the Pinterest condition, but fell for those in the control group. Those who got a daily dose of inspiration on Pinterest (red line in chart below) were more likely to feel that they have someone to turn to for advice, and less likely to withdraw from the people around them or feel disconnected from their communities, compared to the control condition (blue line in chart below).7 This was likely because higher levels of stress in the final exam period led to social disconnectedness for those who didn’t get the buffering effect of inspiration.
Using the same inspiration intervention and participant population (Gen Z) we replicated similar findings across Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and the UK. We found that a daily dose of inspiration preserves the capacity for daily positive emotion, buffers against feelings of social disconnectedness and even helps you stay motivated to do things. We also found that higher levels of inspiration make it easier to relax. This higher level of relaxation was uniquely "unlocked" by seeking inspiration on Pinterest, and was not true of the control condition. In the control condition using puzzles online, there was no relationship between inspiration and relaxation. Specific country-level findings available upon request.
We're encouraged by these research results and the potential to help people improve their wellbeing. As a company, we have committed a third of our total philanthropic funds to the advancement of emotional wellbeing for youth. We're also proud to be partnering with the American Academy of Pediatrics and participating in the US Department of Health and Human Services Center of Excellence on Social Media and Mental Wellness.
We’re always learning from our partners and we’re grateful for how they’ve helped us improve our platform. We support the US Surgeon General’s call-to-action on youth mental health and appreciate the President using his State of the Union to push us forward on this bipartisan issue.
These questions were used with survey participants to gauge how they felt throughout the study.
Please think back on the experiences you had today, and think about the feelings and emotions you felt. For each word please mark the number to show how much of the emotions or feelings you felt today. (1 = None at all, 2 = A little, 3 = A moderate amount, 4 = A lot, 5 = A great deal)
• Sexual desire
Please indicate how much you agree or disagree with the following statements about your work today. (1 = Strongly disagree, 7 = Strongly agree)
• I feel emotionally drained by my studies.
• I feel used up at the end of a day at school.
• I feel burned out from my studies.
• I feel tired when I get up in the morning and I have to face another day at school.
• Studying or attending a class is really a strain for me.
• I have become less interested in my studies since my enrollment at the school.
• I have become less enthusiastic about my studies.
• I have become more cynical about the potential usefulness of my studies.
• I doubt the significance of my studies.
• I can effectively solve the problems that arise in my studies.
• I believe that I make an effective contribution to the classes that I attend.
• In my opinion, I am a good student.
• I have learned many interesting things during the course of my studies.
• I feel stimulated when I achieve my study goals.
• During class I feel confident that I am effective in getting things done.
How much have you been bothered by the following symptoms today? (1 = None at all, 2 = A little, 3 = A moderate amount, 4 = A lot, 5 = A great deal)
• Stomach or bowel problems
• Back pain
• Neck pain
• Pain in your arms, legs, or joints
• Chest pain or shortness of breath
• Feeling tired or having low energy
• Trouble sleeping
In this part, there are statements that may or may not describe thoughts and feelings that you had today. For each sentence please indicate the answer that best describes your own experience today. (1 = Does not describe me, 2 = Describes me slightly well, 3 = Describes me moderately well, 4 = Describes me very well, 5 = Describes me extremely well)
• I had someone to turn to for advice about handling problems.
• I withdrew from the people around me. (reverse-coded)
• I felt that I belonged to a community (like a social group, your school, or your neighborhood).