Finding Wellbeing on Facebook

“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.” –Montesquieu (from “The Anti-Social Network” on

Recent research out of Stanford University’s psychology department has stimulated a lot of theories that Facebook could be making us all miserable.  The reason?  Facebook makes us victims of social comparison.  Psychologists have long theorized that happiness is relative, i.e. not a function of how our lives are going individually, but rather how we feel our lives are going compared to others.

This is one of the leading explanations for the Easterlin Paradox, the idea that growing wealth in the United States in the last century has not led to greater happiness for its citizens.  If everyone is doing better, there is nothing to be happy about.  Only those who experience greater wealth relative to those around them (the 1% for example) actually feel better about their life.

This idea of comparative happiness also came up in research on the happiness of Olympic athletes.  It was found that the third-place Bronze medal winners are actually happier than second-place Silver medal winners.  The Silver medalists compare themselves to the Gold medal winners, and regret how close they came.  The Bronze medalists compare themselves to all those who didn’t get a medal, and are grateful to at least be on the podium.

So what does all of this have to do with Facebook?  On Facebook everyone posts the best pictures of themselves from the best moments in their lives.  People don’t tend to share every detail of their sordid and boring lives, they only show the highlights.  So-and-so got married and posted pictures from their honeymoon in Hawaii, someone else had a baby, another friend is celebrating their anniversary with a trip to Italy.  Maybe your cousin just got a promotion, your sister-in-law just bought a new car, your best friend posted new pictures from his jungle safari in Africa, and your ex-girlfriend is now “in a relationship.”  It’s easy to see how someone might process all this and worry that their own life just doesn’t seem to measure up.

The Stanford research, in a paper called “Misery Has More Company Than People Think,” showed that people tend to think they are suffering alone.  They underestimate the negative emotions that are experienced by their peers, and generally assume their friends are far happier than they actually are.  It is easy to imagine how this illusion could be reinforced by scrolling through your friends posts on Facebook.

Facebook is designed to encourage this:  “The presence of a ‘Like’ button, without a corresponding ‘Hate’ button—reinforces a kind of upbeat spin doctoring” (From  “The Anti-Social Network” on  Good news gets “liked” up the rankings and bad news quickly fades away as people don’t know how to respond.

Ironically, this is why Facebook can also be really good for wellbeing . . . it is a great place to share good news.  Psychologists use the term “capitalization” to describe the act of sharing good news with others, and it has been shown to be good for us.  Research by Shelly Gable and Harry Reis, for example, found that college students’ mood and life satisfaction were highest when they shared their most positive event with others.  Facebook is a perfect forum for this, allowing us to quickly and easily share good news with others on a regular basis.

And Gable and Reis also found that the way people respond to the good news is important and can enhance wellbeing even more.  The kind of response that boosts mood and life satisfaction is described “active constructive responding” an enthusiastic response that engages with the news sharer and helps them to savor and bask in the glow of their recent boons.   This is exactly the kind of response that many people get on Facebook in the comments to a post.

So Facebook can be a tool for negative social comparison, but it can also be a savoring machine.  A place to share the best events of your life and then revel in the comments and likes from your social network.   I can attest to this personally as I just gave birth to my second son and love sharing the baby pictures with my social network.  It feels good to share the photos and it feels even better to see the strong positive reaction from my friends and family from around the world.

As another example, most of us have experienced how birthdays are made more enjoyable as a Facebook wall lights up with messages of love from “friends” you might not otherwise ever talk to.

Managing your wellbeing on Facebook can be tricky, but there may be a way to use it to your benefit, avoiding the risks of negative social comparison but reaping the rewards of capitalization and savoring.  The answer is simple: share your own good news as often as you can . . . but ignore the posts of your friends.

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11 Responses to Finding Wellbeing on Facebook

  1. DanGringo February 7, 2012 at 9:10 am #

    Interesting! But I think seeing other people’s happy snippets makes me more happy than jealous, and reconnecting with old friends and seeing how they are doing also outweighs any envy, for me anyway. Cute kids, Jeremy 🙂

  2. Jessica February 7, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    Wow. So true. I probably won’t post the shouting match I got in with my fiance this morning, but I’ll post the cute thing I do to show we have made up. Ugh. This is deep for first thing in the morning, Jeremy. lol

  3. Marie-Josee Shaar February 7, 2012 at 11:27 am #

    I like that you are exposing both sides of the medal, but I disagree with your conclusion. Did you write “ignore the posts of your friends” just to stir up a little controversy? How are we really savoring and capitalizing if no one responds to our good news? Won’t that make us feel that much more lonely and irrelevant?

    Last week I wrote about “Who Helps You Go from Good to Great?” – here’s the link to it:

    My suggestion is the exact opposite: to spend less time around energy-vampires and more time around those who help increase positivity in your life, maybe you can start by celebrating their good news. They’ll want to reciprocate.


  4. Sara Firman February 7, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

    I have several brave friends on Facebook who have been willing to share their downs along with their ups. I notice that the responses are always supportive, for either occurrence.

    Recently, for example, one friend posted that she was going for a job interview about which she was very excited. Then she posted that she’d ‘done her best’ at the interview, which was a small flag for me. A few days later, she was sad at a rejection and seeking advice at how best to cope with that (and a whole host of other losses that came to the fore). Perhaps the support of her friends at all three junctures meant that a day or two later she was flying off to another prospect! Ups and downs but always support.

    For myself, sharing personal ups and downs on FB doesn’t come easily. Easier is supporting others or writing about the ups and downs in stewarding the forest that surrounds me. But I am often heart-warmed by the way in which people take care of each other this way.

    In my experience all this appears to enhance and extend connection vs comparison. At least on the surface of things, and hopefully sinking in deeper too.

  5. Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) February 7, 2012 at 4:27 pm #

    Hi Dan! Actually, I feel the same way for the most part so I think some people might be more prone to negative social comparison than others. Maybe they are the ones who should stay away from facebook just like others might be better off staying away from sweets or from liquor!

  6. Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) February 7, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    Hi MJ, yes I was being somewhat tongue in cheek on my last line. I don’t really think you should ignore your friends’ posts. I think you are right, Facebook is a great place to share good news AND help your friends share their good news. But the research suggests this might be difficult for some.

  7. Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) February 7, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

    Sara, The reality is Facebook gets blamed for lots of things (bullying, social rejection, negative social comparison) which are not necessarily aspects of Facebook, they are just aspects of life. Facebook just happens to be one more “place” where people can communicate and network. Sometimes those communications are positive and supportive, sometimes not so much.

  8. Marie-Josee Shaar February 7, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

    Yeah, I figured. But I like your analogy: some should stay away from sweets, for others it’s liquor, and yet others it’s FB!! 😉

  9. 0z February 8, 2012 at 3:18 am #

    its complicated

  10. Lucy Hone February 9, 2012 at 4:22 pm #

    Agreed. FB is just like life: we’re all personally responsible for how we interpret and use it. I like that you’ve brought my attention to the fact that I’m using it to capitalize Jeremy, so thanks for that and enjoy your new baby.

  11. charles wills February 12, 2012 at 11:55 am #

    Way 2 Funny,,,,,I Love the Internalist vs. Externalist debate..!

    We are either Living wth-in or Living with-out? With-out what? Inner Love and Peace of Mind..

    Why the Explosion of Needing others approval or recognition??? on a daily basis? SAD!

    The typical North American day for most is way to busy,,”Rat Race,,Bob Marley”

    So let’s come home or spend those few free moments during the day and focus on more External issues?

    In the early 70’s when my Aunt Edith went to see the “Dr. that would help Aunt Edith be Happier” (I was told by my Mom} I got excited and went by her house a few days after..

    I asked my Aunt all about it, she being as nice as ever said “the Dr. suggest I get more busy, take up some new hobbies” when asking her why he said so she would forget about all her problems and by doing so they would all disappear..He also perscribed that magic blue pill of the 70’s the Beatles sang about…how many women were Cursed by that same advice? MILLIONS..(creating many more Medical Losers for Profit) Who profited? I wonder!

    Inner Peace is Inner LOVE….External focus is destroying many Lives,,
    Why is suicide Epidemic today? Familes falling apart,, local news througout the USA horrible with teenagers doing things to each other unthinkable a few years back?

    My best friends children and my wn have grown up without TV and facebook,, now at about 15-20 years they view both of and on, but in a whole different Light then I spoke of above…

    Facebook creates many more Medical Losers…


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