Is Facebook Making Us Sadder?

In my posts on unhappiness last week I talked about how relative comparisons with our peers can lead to unhappiness. I saw an interesting example of that dynamic this week over at Slate.

In her piece The Anti-Social Network Libby Copeland reviews a recent study published psychologist Alex Jordan and others in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The study examined how we tend to unfavorably compare our lives to others and how Facebook exacerbates these comparisions. From Copeland's article:

...the researchers found that their subjects consistently underestimated how dejected others were–and likely wound up feeling more dejected as a result. Jordan got the idea for the inquiry after observing his friends' reactions to Facebook: He noticed that they seemed to feel particularly crummy about themselves after logging onto the site and scrolling through others' attractive photos, accomplished bios, and chipper status updates. "They were convinced that everyone else was leading a perfect life," he told me.

The human habit of overestimating other people's happiness is nothing new, of course. Jordan points to a quote by Montesquieu: "If we only wanted to be happy it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are." But social networking may be making this tendency worse. Jordan's research doesn't look at Facebook explicitly, but if his conclusions are correct, it follows that the site would have a special power to make us sadder and lonelier. By showcasing the most witty, joyful, bullet-pointed versions of people's lives, and inviting constant comparisons in which we tend to see ourselves as the losers, Facebook appears to exploit an Achilles' heel of human nature...
The whole article is worth a read.

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4 thoughts on “Is Facebook Making Us Sadder?”

  1. Thanks Richard, I think this puts its finger on something that happens a lot. However, for all that has been written about the perils of facebook I continue to think that while social networking exposes psychological and relational problems where they already exist, it is neither the creator or necessarily the perpetrator of those problems. As a matter of fact, when we seem them writ large on screen we might sooner recognize and deal with those problems. We might begin to treat our addiction to posting only the most polished and shiny photos and status updates and actually begin to meet "friends" online with authenticity. We might start to notice those tinges of comparative self-rejection and resist them. If we can do this in "real" life we can do it in "virtual" life. Who is to say which venue will spark those realizations and changes? It seems like facebook could instigate change as much as it might perpetuate problems. So I don't think there is anything exploitive about social networking in principle, at least not in comparison to any kind of communal meeting place. I tend to think it comes down to what we do with it. Since many of my friends are scattered across the world, I think facebook is my opportunity to keep up a kind of community with him, and as much as if we were in the same room it ends up being up to us what we make of that community.

  2. I assume you've seen "The Social Network" (the movie about how Facebook got started). It's an interesting movie...but it's not really a "feel good" movie. Facebook certainly can be used for some noble and helpful purposes, but so much of the start of the concept involved deceit, broken relationships, and greed, that it left me wondering what the fruit of such a shaky foundation would be as time moves forward. Interesting...

  3. Personally, I think of my feelings on reading about my friends' blissful lifestyles on Facebook or in Christmas 'Round Robins' as a form of counter-transference. I am vicariously experiencing the jealousies and unhappinesses of my friends that they need me (the reader) to feel on their behalf. I have discovered a rule over the years:

    The misery I feel on reading another person's communication is inversely proprtional to that person's actual happiness (as evidenced by subsequent events in their lives)

    This tentative conclusion from my 'action research' both rescues me from the bear-pit of comparison and leads me into prayer for my seeming happy friends.

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