, Salem, MA

August 20, 2013

Cookson: Does Facebook cause unhappiness?

Mary Alice Cookson
The Salem News

---- — Here’s a bit of news you’ll either “like” or not depending on your point of view: A recent study links Facebook use to unhappiness.

The study by researchers at the University of Michigan surveyed 82 young adults over a two-week period, sending them text messages five times a day asking how they were feeling and how much time they’d spent on Facebook since the previous text. And guess what? The researchers correlated increased time spent on Facebook to a drop in mood.

Gee, I’m all for scientific studies, but do you think that receiving texts all day long asking, “Are you unhappy? Are you bored? Are you lonely? What about now?” could have caused those 82 people to feel out of sorts? If people were scrutinizing me like that, I’d certainly be unhappy. It’s like watching one of those medication ads on television — “Do you suffer from…” and thinking, “Hey, yes, that sounds like me!”

Anyway, it seems that the creators of the study have a theory that people tend to mostly share on Facebook about their good times, so seeing friends’ photos and postings about happy occasions might cause people to feel subpar if their lives aren’t measuring up.

I can relate since one of my Facebook friends is an opera singer who travels the world and sometimes posts photos taken from the villas where she stays, generally in romantic places like Austria. Seeing her status updates is a bit worse than viewing a friend’s fabulous vacation photos. At least with the vacation photos, you’re thinking, “Now that does look nice but how much is it costing?” In the case of the opera singer, someone’s paying her to travel to Florence or Venice. Now that’s enough to make anyone feel subpar, especially one who’s pondering something like, “Should I spend the $25 to go to Good Harbor beach today or stay home and clean the basement?”

Sure, there may be a jealousy factor involved, but here’s my theory: I think if people on Facebook are unhappy (and I’m not saying they are), it’s because their Facebook friends are always “liking” their bad news! Recently I saw the posting: “My best friend was in a very serious car accident.” And this posting received 12 likes! When I posted, “My dad took a bad fall and broke his shoulder,” I only got six likes! My friend Liz told me jokingly that I might have gotten 12 likes if he’d broken a hip.

Yes, I do understand that when someone hits “like” under a post, it doesn’t mean they “like” your discomfort or bad news but rather it’s a way of showing solidarity with you — “I’m sorry for your pain. You’ve got my prayers.” But to me, it doesn’t come across that way. Someone posts, “I just got fired” and their friends “like” it. Frankly, that’s sad! And how sad that there’s no “dislike” button so the only way for people to show they care about you is to take the time and trouble to post a comment or — as the next best thing — to “like” your unfortunate situation!

All of this aside, though, the flood of good wishes you receive from Facebook friends on your birthday will more than make up for any slight you might be feeling the rest of the year. Before I joined Facebook, I’d get maybe 10 birthday greetings tops, and two were from my parents, who are my parents after all, so they’re sort of obligated. But since joining Facebook, each year on my special day, I’m bombarded with well-wishers near and far and from as far back as grade school making me feel like a celebrity. And sure, even though you know intellectually that everyone gets this royal birthday treatment, it still goes a long way in making you feel special, so maybe someone should factor that in to the happiness survey.

But I agree with the researchers on this point: Actually getting out and doing something fun might be better than spending time on Facebook. (After all, if you don’t get out and experience life, how will you be able to create an enviable status update?)

Don’t worry, though. Even if you post that you have a pathetically boring subpar life, someone will “like” it!

Mary Alice Cookson is a magazine editor and a Beverly-based columnist. She welcomes comments and “likes” at