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How Friends Make Us Happy on Facebook

Surprise: The more engaged and supportive our friends are, the better we feel.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Back in 2013, a study made headlines for its finding that Facebook makes us unhappy, perhaps because the social network heightened feelings of envy and made people feel like they were wasting their time.Now, researchers have added some nuance to that analysis: Happiness also depends on your friends’ level of engagement. That is, people feel better when friends comment or post on their walls, rather than just sitting back and clicking “like.”

“Receiving targeted, composed communication from strong ties was associated with improvements in well-being while viewing friends’ wide-audience broadcasts and receiving one-click feedback were not,” Moira Burke, a data scientist at Facebook, and Robert Kraut, the Herbert A. Simon Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University, write in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. “These results suggest that people derive benefits from online communication, as long as it comes from people they care about and has been tailored for them.”

In theory, social media could be really good for us, Burke and Kraut write, at least to the extent that it makes us feel like we belong, helps us maintain relationships, and provides social support. On the other hand, social media could make us feel bad about ourselves through what’s called social comparison—basically, if all we do is look at our peers’ posts and feel jealous of their awesome vacations and smiling kids, we’re going to feel terrible.

People feel better when friends comment or post on their walls.

Of course, just as it matters how engaged we are on social media, our friends’ level of engagement is also important. For their analysis, Burke and Kraut looked at data on 1,910 adult Facebook users who took part in three surveys of their well-being, health, and recent major life events. Meanwhile, the researchers tracked three aspects of those users’ communication with friends: “composed” communication, including posts, comments, and messages received from a friend; “one-click” communication, such as likes and pokes; and “broadcast” communication, which included viewing friends’ profiles, clicking on links in their news feeds, and so on. Finally, the team identified strong versus weak ties—essentially, close friends versus more casual ones—based on participants’ reports, family and romantic relationships, and analysis of activity from Facebook’s logs.

The results show that communication can improve well-being, but only when it comes in the form of personalized messages from close friends. In contrast, other kinds of communication such as likes had inconsistent, statistically weak effects.

As with most other studies of social media usage, the results aren’t experimental and can’t be used to determine cause and effect—it’s possible, for example, that people who are cheerier simply receive more messages from friends. Nonetheless, the results are consistent with what we know about interactions—in both social media and life.

“[S]imply reading about friends, receiving text communication from weak ties, and receiving one-click communication did not affect well-being,” the researchers write, “while receiving personalized, effortful communication from close friends was linked to improvements in well-being.”