Research over the past several years shows that heavy users of social media tend to be less happy than non-users. But a new academic study now suggests that social media tools like Facebook can also affect how we perceive the happiness of others.
Students at George Mason University in Virginia were asked how many friends they have on Facebook. “Um, I’ve never actually stopped and looked at it. Probably somewhere between 350 and 400,” responded one student. Another stated, “I would definitely be on Facebook all the time and be like ‘Wow, she’s here, he’s there’.” Finally, a student noted, “I’m a heavy user. I rely a lot on it. I find myself checking it multiple times a day."
Researchers at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah wanted to see if all that time watching people on Facebook affected how users saw - not themselves - but others.
They asked 425 undergraduates if other people have better and happier lives.
Then they surveyed those students on their use of Facebook - looking at how long they had been Facebook users or how many hours a week they spend following Facebook friends.
They found the students who were more involved with Facebook were more likely to think other people’s lives were happier and better. This was especially true among students who included more strangers on their Facebook accounts.
Psychologist Tod Kashdan studies happiness and well-being at George Mason University and has read the Utah findings. “They’re hearing all these great things happening from other people and they’re making a downward comparison to themselves. They’re viewing themselves as ‘My life isn’t as interesting or satisfying as other people’s lives look like’,” he explained.
The authors of the Utah study say the results may be due to a psychological effect called “correspondence bias”.
That’s when we make judgments about someone based on their disposition or personality while ignoring their actual life circumstances.
In the case of Facebook use, it’s easy to assume Facebook friends are always as happy as they appear on their profiles because they are not posting negative attributes or events, only positive ones.
These students say they had similar feelings about what they saw on Facebook during high-school but that, in college, they are more aware of the effect it has on them.
“I give people the impression that my life is perfect and there’s nothing wrong with it when there is so much [wrong], so it’s really false," Nicolle May stated. "It’s like someone else completely with my face.”
“I’m aware that whatever people posted on Facebook isn’t necessarily what their entire life is made of. I feel like people put a fake picture of themselves and try to make themselves look a lot better than they actually are in real life when they're on-line,” Maram Mohamed said.
Psychologists say Facebook and other social media can be valuable tools to connect with people and the world. But that assurance does come with a warning. “Don’t spend a lot of time just looking at other people’s positive events. Share your own and see who are your true friends, who really cares for the things that happen to you,” Kashdan stated.
Psychologists also say Facebook users can lessen the effects highlighted in the Utah study by focusing on their real friends on Facebook, and not on the “Facebook friends” they may hardly even know.