Facebook vs. Reality

For a video reading of this article on YouTube, click here.

The Facebook Experiment - The Happiness Research Institute

The Facebook Experiment – Happiness Research Institute

The Happiness Research Institute recently published a study called “The Facebook Experiment.”

Its question?

“Does social media affect the quality of our lives?”

For the study, they signed up 1095 residents of Denmark who are regular Facebook users, and divided them into two groups. One group continued to use Facebook as usual. The other did not use Facebook at all for a period of one week.

At the end of that time period, they asked all the participants a series of questions. Here’s what they found:

  • The people who did not use Facebook for a week reported significantly higher levels of life satisfaction, real-life social activity, satisfaction with their social life, and several other measures of happiness.
  • The people who did not use Facebook for a week also reported significantly lower levels of worry, sadness, anger, depression, loneliness, and several other indicators of unhappiness.

You can download the simplified, graphically presented results of the study in PDF format here.

Does Facebook accurately reflect the reality of people’s lives?

Obviously a single report based on one week’s worth of using or not using Facebook does not mean that Facebook as terrible, bad, or destructive. Clearly many people find great satisfaction and support in their online connections with others who have similar interests and issues.

However, there is one group of findings of the report that I’d like to focus on:

  • At the beginning of the study, 61% of the participants said that they prefer to post their good sides on Facebook.
  • 69% said that they prefer to post pictures of the great things they experience.
  • 5 out of 10 envy the amazing experiences of others posted on Facebook.
  • 1 out of 3 envy how happy other people seem on Facebook.
  • 4 out of 10 envy the apparent success of others on Facebook.
  • People on Facebook are 39% more likely to feel less happy than their friends.

From these statistics, the study’s authors draw these conclusions:

  • Social media is a non-stop “great news” channel: a constant flow of edited lives that distorts our perception of reality.
  • Instead of focusing on what we actually need, we have an unfortunate tendency to focus on what other people have.

Facebook’s mission statement is:

to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.

And perhaps it is accomplishing that.

But this study points out that it is presenting to its users an unrealistic picture of the world and the people in it. That picture is skewed toward the positive side of people’s lives, and tends to de-emphasize the negative side.

Accentuate the positive?

Okay, the old song does say that we should accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative:

That may be very good advice for us in our own lives.

But we know very well from experience that our lives are a mixture of the positive and the negative. Some things in our lives are good, and others are bad. Sometimes we’re happy and enjoying our lives. Other times we’re struggling, depressed, and life generally sucks.

It certainly is good to work on eliminating the negatives from our lives, and to move toward the positives. But that doesn’t happen by avoiding the negatives. Rather, it happens by facing and overcoming them.

When we look at other people’s lives through their own reporting of their experiences on social media platforms such as Facebook, we’re not seeing the whole story. The positive, happy, great, and exciting things people prefer to report and post pictures of on Facebook represent the high points of their lives, with the low points edited out.

And if we compare our own very mixed lives with the world of Facebook where the positive is artificially accentuated, and the negative artificially eliminated, we’re not comparing our lives with the full reality of other people’s lives.

Reality vs. Facebook

None of this means that using Facebook is a bad thing. (But just for the record, Annette and I do not have Facebook accounts.)

What it means is that we should recognize the reality that Facebook presents an unreal picture of other people’s lives—and of our own lives to others.

When we’re checking up on the latest doings of our friends and family on Facebook or on other social media platforms, we’re seeing what they choose to present to the world. And more often than not, they emphasize the good things they are feeling or experiencing, and leave out most of the bad things.

In short, comparing our own actual experience of life with the picture other people paint of their lives on Facebook is comparing apples and oranges.

When you look at other people’s lives as presented on Facebook, keep this in mind:

Yes, it’s a pretty picture! But in reality, they probably face just as many struggles and heartbreaks in life as you do.

The reality is that all of us have a dark side to our lives. All of us deal with things—and sometimes people—that drive us crazy, depress us, and make us wish that we didn’t have to deal with this world at all.

If you’re an avid user of Facebook or other social media sites, chances are you’re not going to quit. (Though signing off for a week or two might enhance your happiness!)

Just keep in mind as you browse your friends’ amazing exploits and your family members’ sunny vacation photos that you are not seeing the full reality of their lives.

Then go out and spend some time with your friends and family in real life.

Despite all our fancy modern communications technology, there’s still no substitute for good old-fashioned face-to-face human contact.

For a video reading of this article on YouTube, click here.

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Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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8 comments on “Facebook vs. Reality
  1. Eva says:

    I think everyone should be friends with me on facebook, then. It would make them feel better about their lives, by comparison. I’m more likely to post a roomful of lentils and pasta that have been spread everywhere by a toddler, or to complain about my husband and mother in law listening to a BeeGees marathon all afternoon.
    I serve just to make people feel better about themselves 😉

    • Lee says:

      Hi Eva,

      Haha! I guess someone has to bring a little balance to Facebook! 😀

      To be fair, the study is about statistics, trends, and generalities, not about absolutes.

      • Eva says:

        Absolutely- I saw the study too and have to agree with it. Luckily I keep an eye on my own emotions and take a break if I feel that FB. Is making me feel bad about my own life ( which does happen sometimes). I think that, as in all things, we have to be mindful 🙂

        • Lee says:

          Hi Eva,

          A good practice. I do suspect you’re a little more mindful than the average FB user. As long as we’re using the technology, and not the reverse, it is a wonderful tool.

  2. Brian says:

    Another great post, Lee
    As someone who is not on Facebook, I’ve often noticed the same points. Of course people usually intend on putting their best face forward – and they should. Facebook would be nowhere near as popular if all the ugly was seen there too! Being recently split from my wife, I’ve considered creating an account on there to reconnect with old friends or fill a bit of the void that now exists. I haven’t been able to talk myself into it yet though. I think social media is a great tool, just not the only one in the box. Facebook does seem to paint a forced perspective of peoples lives, maybe to the detriment of reality. It’s not a lie, it’s just not the whole truth; and that’s something people can only find by being there – in person.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Brian,

      Thanks! Good to hear from you again. Sorry to hear about your recent break-up though. That’s never easy.

      And agreed. I don’t think Facebook and other social media sites are bad. They’re just not an accurate representation of the reality of people’s lives. And they can never adequately substitute for in-person connections with people. They can indeed accomplish a lot of good if we see them for what they are, and use them as a supplement rather than a substitute for “real life.”

  3. There should be a research that will test different ways of using Facebook.

    What if I just chat with a people, keep up with my favorite bands and follow upcoming events? I don’t really browse people’s photos or statuses. It’s boring. Facebook helps me to keep up with stuff I love and upcoming events people throw, and that’s not something I can give up.

    • Lee says:

      Hi The Brain in the Jar,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.

      Yes, that’s just one study. And as you say, it depends on just how you use Facebook. I happen to think FB and other social media sites can be great tools! But when people start comparing their own life to the unrealistic picture of other people’s lives as presented online, that’s where the problems start.

      Personally, I spend a lot of time online at sites that are in my areas of interest—and that’s not something I’m going to give up, either.

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

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