Surprising Link Between Social Media and Happiness

People flock to Facebook to see the latest wedding news, vacation photos, new baby arrival, or home purchase. Most people, research indicates, head to their newsfeeds to passively watch and compare, much more often than post their own news or updates.

But, it turns out, some of us prefer to look at and compare ourselves to certain types of individuals: those who make us feel better about ourselves. And that, in turn, can lead to an increase in happiness and life satisfaction.

That’s according to new research from Lee Farquhar, Butler University Associate Professor of Entertainment Media and Journalism in the College of Communication. Humans continually observe those around them to see how they fit in, a process called social comparison theory. This innate concept holds true in the world of social media, according to Farquhar’s research. It not only holds true, but the more individuals engage in that type of behavior on Facebook—comparing themselves to others in various ways—the happier and more satisfied they were with their life.

“There is no secret that Facebook intensity has been associated with negative social consequences, such as anxiety, narcissism, and loneliness,” says Farquhar, whose own previous research has revealed those very things. “But this looked at something new. When individuals positively compared themselves to other Facebook users, they had higher levels of reported happiness. These findings nuance previous scholarship that largely indicated heavy Facebook use has a detrimental effect on one’s psychological well-being. It is not the amount of Facebook use that matters, but rather, how one feels they measure up in comparison with those around them.”

Farquhar’s research, published in the Journal of New Media & Culture, surveyed 406 college students and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk Workers. The average age was 32, and 46 percent were male.

The participants went through a series of questions about their social media use, such as time spent on Facebook, how they would feel if the social media outlet was taken away from them, and how often they look at others on Facebook, for example. They also measured life satisfaction and happiness.

The average life satisfaction and happiness scores were about a five out of seven. And, the more frequently one engaged in Facebook activities, the happier one was, Farquhar says. This, he says, can most likely be explained by downward social comparisons.

When individuals positively compared themselves to other Facebook users, they had higher levels of reported happiness and life satisfaction. So, he says, it is likely that individuals were seeking out others who made them feel better about themselves.

“For example, if the user wanted to feel better about his or her career, they might compare to an individual who is unemployed, or had a less appealing job. That same type of comparison could be done for virtually every other aspect of one’s life, like intelligence, family life, the list goes on,” he says. “It is not simply the amount of social comparing one does that matters, but the type of comparison that predicts happiness and life satisfaction.”

This targeted, downward social comparison, was the predictor of happiness and overall life satisfaction, Farquhar says. Facebook is the ideal medium for this, he says, because it allows users to select particular people or elements to hone in on for comparison, while blocking out those elements, or people, that are unwanted.

What this study didn’t account for, Farquhar explains, is the long-term impact of this behavior.

“I wouldn’t encourage people to spend more time on Facebook looking for people to look down on,” he says. “Looking for peers to look down on to make oneself feel better is not the prescription here. We believe the more time spent on there, the less satisfied with life one will eventually be, as one is bound to run into unfavorable social comparisons.”

But, he says, the findings are important for adding a more nuanced understanding to the social media behemoth. For so long the conversation has focused on doom and gloom when it comes to Facebook. While that may still be true, it is important to understand the medium in a more detailed way.

Facebook lends itself to downward social comparison, and therefore, makes the user feel better. So, he explains, for some, social media can have a positive impact, even if it is fleeting. This study also helps us understand how users interact with the medium on a more intimate level.

“We assumed the results would fall in line with the body of literature that says social media interactions make you feel worse and were surprised to see any sort of uptick,” Farquhar says. “We assumed, you go online, look at others, and feel worse. We believe downward comparison is going on and this adds another dimension to the complex conversation about Facebook.”

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