It’s easy to complain about Facebook taking over your life. The round-the-clock alerts from family and friends about posts, ads, photos, shared news items, etc., can definitely get annoying. On the other hand, it’s helpful to stay abreast of current events and in touch with people you wouldn’t otherwise see. So is Facebook really so bad? A new study looked into that very question…and got some surprising answers.

Researchers at New York University and Stanford University recently surveyed nearly 3,000 Facebook users of various ages who agreed to do without their accounts for a period of time. About half were randomly assigned to deactivate their accounts for four weeks (the researchers confirmed that they did indeed do it). Compared with the rest of the participants, who continued to use their accounts at their usual frequency, the researchers discovered some surprising benefits among those who went offline.

Results: On average, participants who shut down Facebook got at least one extra hour of free time each day. Another big benefit was that the extra time was not spent online somewhere else—for instance, scrolling through Twitter. Instead, the extra time typically was used to do things such as spend time with friends and family or simply watch TV. A possible downside (depending on your perspective) was that being off Facebook meant paying less attention to the news. But even that had a silver lining—it made participants less polarized about their political beliefs.

The most important benefit to shutting down Facebook, though, was that those who did so reported feeling happier and more satisfied with their lives—possibly the result of spending more time socializing with loved ones, the researchers speculated.

Surprisingly, while some participants couldn’t wait to reconnect with their social platform, some kept up the Facebook-free habit—11% of the participants stayed off for an additional week and 5% were still abstaining after two months.

A Mindful Approach

That said, there is no need to turn our backs completely on Facebook. It’s the best social platform for such things as reconnecting with long-lost friends, finding like-minded groups and extending your support. But you may be less lonely…a kinder, more tolerant person…and in general more content with your life if you learn to use Facebook mindfully. Deborah Serani, PsyD, psychologist and adjunct professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, offers some suggestions…

Before you log on, ask yourself why you’re doing it. Are you checking Facebook to pass time…to catch up on news…to see reactions to something you shared…or to see what the Joneses are up to? If you’re just killing time, it might be better to focus on what’s going on around you, especially if there are other people with whom you could be interacting. If you’re checking up on friends/family, are you doing it to keep in touch…or to compare their fab vacations (or lives) with your own? An honest answer can potentially help you curb unhealthy behavior.

Other signs of an out-of-control habit: Is social media interfering with my sleep? Do I choose online over spending time with a loved one? Are most of my interactions on Facebook rather than face-to-face?

Set limits. It’s easy to get lose track of time, so set a timer—say, for 20 minutes. Your phone probably has a tool to measure screen time on various apps, and Facebook itself has recently added features to help track and limit use.

Also helpful: Go on only during the day, not at night—and never right before bed! Not only can blue light from smartphone and computer screens interfere with sleep, getting wound up over someone else’s politics or other emotionally charged agenda is not conducive to restful slumber.

Check your activity log. Facebook tracks all your interactions. Click on the small triangle at the upper right-hand side of your Facebook page to check your activity log…or check the “settings” section of your phone app. It’s a great way to see how often you reach out, to whom and what you said. Rereading dialogues can be eye-opening…and give you a chance to rethink, for instance, whether heated but pointless political “discussions” with your pals (or, worse, strangers!) are really worth it.

Check your gut. Worrying that you might be too dependent on Facebook is probably a clue that you are. If setting limits hasn’t eased your concern, try deactivating for a week or so. You might find that you like your extra time better than your newsfeed!