Bitter About Your Life? Blame Facebook

New research suggests heavy Facebook users are more likely to believe other people have happier lives.
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Has life treated you unfairly? Do you have a nagging suspicion that other people, are, on balance, happier than you are?

You might want to get off of Facebook.

A newly published study suggests the phenomenally popular social networking site may be skewing the way users perceive their lives. It finds those carefully selected photos of cheerful, contented people cumulatively convey a self-esteem-shattering message: Our lives are fantastic! What’s wrong with you?

At least, that’s the conclusion of Utah Valley University sociologist Hui-Tzu Grace Chou, who conducted a study of 425 undergraduates at her school. Her paper, coauthored by Nichols Edge, was recently published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.

Participants read a series of self-defining statements — including “Most of my friends have a better life than me,” “Many of my friends are happier than me,” and “Life is fair” — and expressed the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with them. The students also estimated how much time they spend socializing with friends in a typical week.

They then described their Facebook activity, including the number of online “friends” they have, and how many of them are people they don’t actually know. Ninety-five percent reported using Facebook; on average, they had been users for 2.5 years, and spent 4.8 hours per week on the site.

After taking gender, religiosity, and relationship status into account, “those who spent more hours on Facebook each week, and those who included more people they did not personally know as their Facebook ‘friends,’ agreed more (with the statement that) others had better lives than themselves,” the researchers report. “The more hours people spent on Facebook, the stronger was their agreement that others were happier.”

“The number of years of using Facebook also had a significant impact on people’s perceptions,” the researchers add. “Those who had used Facebook longer tended to perceive that others were happier than themselves, and had a lower degree of agreement with the statement that life is fair.”

Chou contends this dissatisfaction is the result of the common psychological process known as “correspondence bias,” in which we draw false conclusions about people based on limited knowledge. In this case, Chou writes, “looking at happy pictures of others on Facebook gives people an impression that others are ‘always’ happy and having good lives, as evident from these pictures of happy moments.”

Rationally, of course, we may realize that our “friend” Jim is putting his best face forward on his Facebook page. But if we barely know Jim (or know him only in pixels) and his name comes up in conversation, those smiling, happy photos are what pop into our minds. These easily retrieved mental images can foster the feeling that Jim is leading an unusually joyous life.

Multiply that distorting dynamic by the number of Facebook “friends” you don't actually know, and it’s easy to see how bitterness could begin to brew.

Evidence supporting this interpretation comes from another finding of the study. Participants who spent more time socializing with their friends were less likely to agree with the statement that other people have better lives than themselves. It seems interacting in person gives us a better sense that everyone’s life has its ups and downs.

So if you’re feeling bad about yourself, turn off the computer and spend some time actually talking with people face to face. You might be surprised to learn that everyone’s got it tough in some way — even if they don’t admit as much on their Facebook page.

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