The sad truth about Facebook happiness


Research suggests that browsing the seemingly happy lives of others on social-networking sites could contribute to feelings of unhappiness, writes KEITH DUGGAN

‘BECAUSE THEY are exclusive. And fun. And they lead to a better life,” Mark Zuckerberg tells his (soon-to-be-ex) girlfriend in Social Network, explaining why he wanted to crack the Harvard society clubs with his cyber invention that quickly transmogrified into Facebook.

One of the fascinations of the film lay in watching the dramatisation of its lightning growth from a geeky collegiate late-night experiment to its present role as the contact point hundreds of millions of us now switch on to as automatically as the previous generations did the television and the radio. And of all the lines in Aaron Sorkin’s crackling screenplay, there is something salutary in the notion that Facebook’s founder was driven by the old-fashioned notion of pursuing happiness and getting in with the in-crowd.

But does it fulfil that quest? Does the ultimate connection tool even make people feel connected?

A recent study conducted at Stanford University found that browsing Facebook and other social-networking sites can contribute to feelings of unhappiness or low self-esteem. The freedom to browse the profiles of friends (and friends of friends) is a form of licensed nosiness. But the fleeting enjoyment to be had from flicking through these presentations of other lives can leave users feeling somewhat hollow once they switch off and find themselves back in their actual lives.

“Some friends had told me that when they went online, to sites like Facebook, if they were feeling down about something in their lives they would often fixate on what they perceived other people to have that they themselves did not – the perfect relationship, for example, or the perfect job, perfect children – which made them feel even worse,” says Alex Jordan, who authored the research.

“This led me to wonder whether people might generally think that others’ lives are happier than they actually are, given the human tendency to advertise a cheery disposition on the surface.”

Jordan is a social psychologist and a visiting assistant professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. In the study, social networking was used as a tool to measure how people perceive – and often misread – the emotional lives of their peers, rather than the main thrust of the study itself.

“Other researchers have looked at how social comparisons in other domains – such as wealth – might affect people, but the social comparison of emotion is severely understudied.”

Jordan’s paper, Misery Has More Company Than People Think, which appeared in the January issue of the Personality and Psychology Bulletin, was not written as a criticism of social networks. The study does not deny the benefits of social networks. “I think online social networks like Facebook can have lots of benefits,” he says. “They help us stay connected to friends and family we might otherwise fall out of touch with, and the positive emotion expressed on them can be contagious, at least at times we’re feeling good. But I do think there’s a potential hazard when people log online at times they’re already feeling sad, if they don’t recognise that the portrait of peers’ lives they’re receiving online can be as heavily edited as a television programme.”

It might seem logical that the majority of people would implicitly understand that the pages they are browsing are a front. But one of the studies carried out by Jordan found that some 140 students failed to accurately assess the moods of those they were close to.

It stands to reason, therefore, that they would be even less equipped to read through the positive-vibe messages and glossy photographs posted on social networks.

Feeling inadequate? One-upmanship on Facebook

The idea of one-upmanship was put to a group of Irish journalism students, their responses were largely corroborative. Here’s a selection:

"It’s particularly relevant at the moment, with things so grim here. You see friends off in Oz or South America, and they look to be having the time of their life. It makes you miserable being stuck at home, yet in reality most of them are pining for home and would spend hours reading the local paper, looking at photos from matches, parties in the local etc. In some ways it makes things better, but in other ways just exacerbates what’s originally bothering you anyway."

"I can safely say that nearly every time I come off Facebook I feel like I should be re-evaluating some aspect of my life.

"Then I come back into the now and realise I have just been a victim to successful acts of personal publicising. But that’s not that easy. When I am scrolling through the fabulous photographs of my friends living it up in Rio/NZ/Oz, all I can think is, ‘Why am I not doing that?’

Likewise when some of my friends showcase their house-buying behaviour I think “what am I doing with my life?” No matter how sure you are about the situation you’re in at the moment, I think it would take a highly confident person not to be slightly shaken about what their friends are up to at the same point in their lives. I give myself a time limit – 10 minutes is my cut-off. Past that I’ll need a friend’s intervention."

"It makes me slightly annoyed when I see certain statuses pop up depicting the writer in a way I know is false to themselves in reality. The absence of a hate button is something that protects people from bullying, no doubt, but a dislike button may force people to cop on a small bit and actually present themselves in a truer light."

"The same is true of real-life situations. One of the advantages of social networks is that they facilitate users in the art of communication, without the awkwardness and self-consciousness that might arise in real-life situations. Surely the feelings of inadequacy or the belief – however misplaced – that others are somehow happier simply mirrors the insecurities people may experience when they go out and meet people in the real world?"