“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 Slate.com)
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 Slate.com) 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.