Facebook Can Be Better Than Happiness

Use judiciously, but be not afraid.
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(GeorgeEastmanHouse/Flickr)

Multiple outlets remonstrated the Facebook-inclined yesterday, to the effect of "Facebook Use Predicts Decline In Happiness." The stories were based on an academic research article out of the University of Michigan published in PLOSOne, titled "Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults."

In the new study, 82 college students (average age 19, having received $20 for their trouble) went about their academic, Ann Arboreal days. That included their usual amount of Facebook use. For two straight weeks, researchers "text-messaged participants five times per day. ... Each text-message contained a link to an online survey, which participants completed using their smartphones."

The surveys asked questions like "How do you feel right now?""How worried are you?""How lonely do you feel"—soliciting responses on a scale of 0 to 100. Oh and also, of course, "How much have you used Facebook?" (wherein 0 meant "not at all" and 100 meant "a lot").

The study did not measure the happiness of a group of people who were not being texted five times a day to talk about how lonely they are.

The researchers noted small correlations and concluded that the more the subjects used Facebook, the worse they felt.

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So, is Facebook making us lonely? Or less happy? The Atlantic put our three-cornered hat in the ring of this discussion with a cover article last spring—which, despite the cover art, was not about vampires. At the time, Stephen Marche described the distancing intimacy of social media in the context of an overall decline in social integration (In 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant.) Marche suggested that using technology in place of real interaction was at least partly to blame; Facebook can be, if not the drug, the enabler.

If the idea wasn't intuitive at the time, it probably is by now. In a parallel vein since then, Atlantic Health has run a few pieces on the nature of happiness that have been well received. In "There's More to Life Than Being Happy," for one, Emily Esfahani Smith discussed Victor Frankl and the superiority of pursuing not happiness, but meaning. She discussed a study in which parents were happier while watching TV than while caring for their children. As Frankl wrote in Man's Search for Meaning, "Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is."

The lead author of the new Facebook study, University of Michigan social psychologist Ethan Kross, told CBS, “On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection.”

That surface seems to be the assumption that will circle back and eat its sad, lonely tail. The technology is at best ancillary. When people ask me if they should take multivitamins, I say go ahead, it probably won't hurt. Unless you then start eating terribly, or not exercising or obeying traffic signals because, I took a vitamin.

For what one person's experience is worth, I've lived in five cities in the past five years. That sort of motion wears though meaningful real-life relationships. If social media makes me lonelier, it's only when I try to use it to "fulfill the basic human need for social connection"—instead of, you know, "getting out there" in the new worlds. That said, if you're ever lonely in a city where you don't know people, so you go to a party to which you weren't invited and just stand against a wall, talk to no one, and watch beautifully curated people have fun—that's the loneliness-in-a-crowd feeling that many of us know as the potential gut-punch of Facebook.

Most of us don't do that in real life, though. (Do we?) Well if we do, we don't blame the party. To reiterate the recurring points on social media and happiness in light of yesterday's headlines: Facebook probably isn't making you lonely or unhappy, or vampiric, unless you're using it to replace real interactions and things that give life meaning. The harder we try to be happy, the less we are. When we use social media right—not in pursuit of happiness, not in curating a supernatural persona, but to keep in touch with people we otherwise wouldn't, to learn about things we would've missed—there's the potential to drift closer to Frankl's all-important "forgetting about [one]self."

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

 
 

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