Happiness, online and off

Written for SCRIBE Magazine.

Smiling couples, vacations, nights out on the town. House parties, weddings, drinks on the beach. Everyone seems so much happier online, don’t they? It’s not uncommon now to go rifling through one another’s Facebook, Instagram or Twitter accounts, immersed in even the most banal minutia of one another’s lives. More than often people will compare their own lives to the pictures and status updates of their peers, calculating in so many imprecise terms how they stack up to others’ seemingly whimsical and carefree existences.

Many can probably attest to feeling a little inadequate when catching up with friends old and new by way of profile pictures and status updates. They’re on the beach with a cocktail; we’re just finishing up season three of our Everybody Loves Raymond box set. We breathe a heavy sigh and insert disc four. The question lingers, however – is this envy truly a legitimate grievance, or is it a mere matter of perception?

“People tend to present themselves to others in overly positive ways,” says Nathan Heflick, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Kent in Canterbury, U.K. “The Internet is no exception, and might even be worse than face to face interaction.” Heflick says that as outsiders, we tend only to see the aspects of a user’s life that support the image of a successful and fulfilling lifestyle. “The outsider only sees half of the story of that person’s life, at best. If you go on vacation with a partner, do you post images of the arguments you might have had? No, you post images of the two of you kissing on the beach, or smiling outside of a landmark.”

Heflick notes that such behavior is not unlike an athlete’s highlight reel: “If you imagine an athlete, pretty much any athlete who is professional, and take his or her top 25 plays and show only those plays to someone they will think he or she is amazing. But that highlight reel leaves out all the bad plays.”

Here’s where problems can arise. Dana Klisanin, psychologist and executive director of the MindLab at the Center for Conscious Creativity in Los Angeles, says that our tendency to overlook the obvious selectiveness of our peers’ updates might stem from problems surrounding what researchers call “passive consumption” of social media – submissively absorbing content produced by others (updates, pictures), but producing very little of our own. “Individuals who are creating and posting content are happier than those who are simply scrolling through the posts,” says Klisanin. “Thus far the existing research suggests that active consumption of social media is positively associated with life satisfaction, while passive consumption of social media is negatively associated with life satisfaction.” She suggests that regular users exercise caution with regards to how much time they spend perusing social media outlets. “This doesn’t mean we can’t find enjoyment scrolling through Facebook any more than it means we can’t enjoy watching a football game, but it does mean that we don’t want to make a habit of being a spectator.”

Klisanin is certainly not alone in suggesting that this passive behavior may be at the root of the problem. Ongoing research files hosted by analysts at the Humboldt University of Berlin say that envy of one another’s online persona is a common result of regular social networking: “First, unprecedented scale of information sharing registered on social networking sites naturally provides a ground for envy, which is typically induced when new information is learned about the other. Second, social networking sites offer users easy and transparent means to compare and “benchmark” themselves against their peers, inducing them to engage in social comparison.”

The research notes that prolonged dwelling on the eccentricities of each others’ digital lives can cause significant damage to users’ well-being and impact their level of satisfaction with life overall. As far as relationships are concerned, social psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto Amy Muise says that the users posting photos of holidays and evenings out tend to be the ones most happy with their chosen partner.

“We have focused on romantic relationships specifically and in general, we find that people who post more about their relationship on Facebook tend to be more satisfied with their relationship,” says Muise. This could mean that we’re comparing our relationships (or lack thereof) to the reasonably smaller number of traditionally “happier” couples, and unintentionally ignoring the more complicated relationships that fill up the rest of the romantic spectrum. On the other hand, Muise also says that many users who make a point of posting pictures and status updates of and about their beloved may be doing so because they’re uncertain about the status of their relationship. “But, at the same time people who are anxiously attached (desire intense closeness, fear abandonment) tend to desire more relationship visibility.”

A 2014 study conducted by Muise and other researchers entitled “Can You Tell That I’m in a Relationship? Attachment and Relationship Visibility on Facebook” points to something similar: “The desire and decision to make a relationship visible to others reflect people’s fears or aspirations for closeness with their romantic partners, with avoidant individuals eschewing relationship visibility and anxious individuals yearning for it.”

It all makes sense: The more you post about your partner, the more you solidify the perception of a healthy, functional and happy relationship. More often than not, what we end up with is an unrealistic, unbalanced, and wholly unfair portrayal of real-life happiness that saturates the digital world.
You can hardly blame social media, though. When you think about it, it’s not much different from walking through a friend’s house and eyeing the pictures sitting on the window sill (or above the roaring fireplace, depending on how fancy your friends are). Of course they took pictures of themselves in front of Old Faithful on their trip to California, with the more tongue-in-cheek of the two bending over at just the right angle to make it look like the geyser was… well, you get the picture.
What they didn’t get a picture of was even one of the three fights regarding whether or not you’re supposed to tip the bell boy, or the food poisoning that kept the more digestively-adventurous of the two bound by both ends to the hotel porcelain for a sizable chunk of the vacation.

With that in mind, it seems that the worrywarts among us can rest easy with the knowledge that for all of their careful persona-crafting, the users that purvey the image of an extravagant life are still very much regular people, with all of the good days and bad days that come with the territory of being human. It might be better instead to focus the same time we put into sitting and clicking in silent admiration into actualizing our own happiness, eventually making the very exercise of envy incomprehensible. It might not be a stretch to suggest that we all defy the clear essence of millennial life by stepping away from the keyboard, joining hands and going outside. A little fresh air might be just the thing to lend us all a bit of perspective.

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