Have you ever noticed that you sometimes feel a little flat after spending time on Facebook?
A study by Kross et al. (2013) found that young people experience lower levels of subjective well-being after spending time on the social media site.
Why would this be?
Some scholars argue that it’s because we compare.
According to social comparison theory this is what we do as humans: we compare ourselves to others all the time. And we learn to do this from a very young age. Even capuchin monkeys do this.
There was an experiment conducted by Brosnan and de Waal (2003) where they made capuchin monkeys work for rewards. For the first experiment, both monkeys were given a piece cucumber as a reward for their efforts. Both monkeys seemed happy with this.
But then one of the monkeys started receiving grapes instead of cucumber. Did the little monkey who was still receiving cucumber notice this? Of course. And he wasn’t happy.
In protest, he started throwing his cucumber pieces at the researcher! You can see the video footage here.
We may not realise it but sometimes we can be a bit like that little monkey when we go on Facebook. We have our eye on what others have and do and many of us feel sad and inadequate as a result. But more on this shortly.
The psychology of comparing
According to the psychological literature, there are two types of comparison we can engage in: 1) downward comparisons, and 2) upward comparisons.
When you compare up, you compare yourself to people who seem to be better off than you. These people have better grades, better looks and better things. “If only I was smarter like them, my life would be better!” you think to yourself.
Engaging in upward comparisons usually leaves us feeling a little ‘meh’ and lacklustre about our lives.
On the other hand, downward comparisons involve comparing yourself to people who appear to be worse off than you. How do you feel after making downward comparisons? Pretty good about the state of your life!
This is why Facebook may make you miserable…
When you’re on Facebook most of the time you’re engaging in upward comparisons. This is largely due to the dominance of ‘self-promoting’ status updates.
Researchers have proposed three classes of status updates:
1) Updates that reveal negative emotions and existential angst (e.g. “Having a bad day. Sometimes I wonder what the point of it all is”);
2) Updates recording ‘pooterish banality’ (e.g. “watching Breaking Bad with the cat on my lap while drinking a banana milkshake. Can’t complain.”); and
3) Updates that are self-promoting in nature (e.g. “Just signed the book deal with the publisher! Time to pop the champagne!”).
Due to evolutionary motives, most of us post updates that fall into category 3. We have a tendency to post the best bits of our lives online. The most exciting parts. We’ve all seen it: a delicious meal out with friends. Holiday snaps by a pool in Bali. A selfie with a famous person.
I know one person who posts continuously about his adventures around the world, his meetings with celebrities and appearances at award nights with him holding multiple trophies. Boy, does he sure make his life look exciting! But when I look at his updates, I feel inadequate and exhausted.
When your goal in life is to be happy
Once your basic needs are met and your goal in life is to be happy and achieve some level of success, then Facebook is a potential avenue for you to become miserable and depressed.
After all, how do we measure how successful we are? It’s all relative to others.
We look at Johnny standing by his new Porsche after he’s been given the keys from the dealer, we see a friend has just graduated with a PhD and another has just published her third book that is set to become a bestseller. And we don’t feel so good.
As Blease (2015) states:
“Being confronted by conspicuously and overwhelmingly positive impressions of one’s Facebook friends increases the occasion for comparative evaluations; and escalates the risk for negative appraisals: Facebook presents more opportunities to feel like a loser”
So what can we do to avoid feeling like a loser?
You could try shifting your perspective. Neuroscientist Dr Sam Harris asks the question:
“Do you want to be inspired by the creativity and success of others or do you want to be diminished by it?”
Dr Harris suggests if you want other peoples’ success to be a source of joy and inspiration for you (rather than to diminish you) then it may be a matter of shifting your thinking. As he says, we tend to think:
“There are only 10 slices of pie and every piece that is taken is less for me!”.
Perhaps there is enough pie (i.e. opportunities) out there for all us. Thinking in this way can help us to rejoice in the successes of others rather than feel envious.
It’s also important to keep in mind that people’s Facebook profiles are completely manufactured and not an accurate portrayal of reality. It’s a curated life. As Wallman reminds us in his book ‘Stuffocation’:
“Your friends’ lives may well not be so perfect…life for most people, after all, is not a flawless timeline of weekends away and weddings in glamorous places. And if you stop to think about it, you know that.
But it is hard to keep that in perspective and not be affected by all those sunsets, sunrises, and lunches of the verandah. And since we are all connected to so many people on Facebook, there is always someone jetting off to Costa Rica, having lunch in Lima, lounging on a boat in the Mediterranean, or attending a wedding in Marrakech.
…So each time we check in, we cannot help but feel that our lives are so much smaller, hollower, and frankly, more earthbound than those of our friends who are off doing glamorous things. This constant bombardment leaves us feeling always at the bottom of the pile looking up”.
But perhaps the antidote to feeling like a loser may be to simply spend less time on Facebook. As Blease (2015) proposes, we are more likely to feel depressed by Facebook when we:
a) have more online friends;
b) spend a lot of time reading the updates of a wide pool of ‘friends’;
c) frequently read these Facebook updates;
d) read updates that tend to be bragging in nature; and
e) access Facebook as a solitary pursuit.
Spending less time on Facebook limits your exposure to content that may result in upward comparisons. Or if you don’t like that idea, you could unfollow ‘friends’ who tend to brag or go one step further by artfully doing a ‘friend cull’.
So next time you’re scrolling through your Facebook feed and you start to feel a pang of inadequacy, remind yourself of that little capuchin monkey. Remind yourself that you’re in a distorted landscape, where people are driven by evolutionary motives to present themselves in the best possible light. And instead of throwing some cucumber in protest at the screen, log off and go do something else.
Blease, C. R. (2015). Too many ‘friends,’too few ‘likes’? Evolutionary psychology and ‘Facebook depression’. Review of General Psychology, 19(1), 1.
Brosnan, S. F., & De Waal, F. B. (2003). Monkeys reject unequal pay. Nature, 425(6955), 297-299.
Kross, E., Verduyn, P., Demiralp, E., Park, J., Lee, D. S., Lin, N., . . . Ybarra, O. (2013). Facebook use predicts declines in subjective well- being in young adults. PLoS One, 8, e69841.