If you are like most Facebook users (6 out of 10, according to a survey by Edison Research, one of the most respected research firms), you wake up most mornings with Facebook. And as you scroll through that little universe that houses perhaps hundreds, perhaps thousands of your “friends”, you see the lives of those people you do not know very well unfold before your eyes. And that daily scroll can be profoundly intimidating. It’s a stream of “highlight reels” filled with impossibly cute children, wondrously-performing pets, trips to exotic locales, perfect gourmet dinners, and inspiring life achievements. Inevitably, you begin comparing those fun- and action-filled lives with your own seemingly Dullsville existence. The thought will not go away: My life cannot possibly compare with this. You begin to feel envious, sometimes even jealous, and sometimes – c’mon, admit it – you hate your “friends” just a little.
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Turns out you’re not alone.
It’s official: Facebook can make you miserable
Research is increasingly backing what has long been suspected: that feeling envious about Facebook friends is commonplace. One major study from Germany found that 1 out of 3 respondents reported predominantly negative feelings such as envy, frustration and anger when they read their FB feed. The envy, the study reported, was caused by “observing copious amounts of positive news” from seemingly successful friends. This inevitably fosters “social comparison” – a concept that is not at all new. What makes it different and worse today is that social media sites like Facebook make us privy to information we normally do not have access to, thus giving us more opportunities to compare. And the longer we linger on FB, the study found, the more we compare – no surprises there.
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The study also found a correlation between FB envy and a user’s level of life satisfaction in general. That is, seeing the human highlight reel every day not only provoked envy, but made people think less of the value of their own lives... which, in turn, led them to start embellishing their own FB posts... which then provoked envy among other users, a phenomenon the researchers called the FB “envy spiral”.
Other research has found that FB users who experienced envy every time they scrolled their new posts, were also likely to experience symptoms of depression. People with emotional difficulties are particularly susceptible to depression caused by FB social comparison. For those already struggling with depression, the scintillating views of their friends’ lives and the seemingly breathless messages, trailed by a string of exclamation marks, gussied up with sassy emoticons, may make them feel alone in their internal struggles, which may compound their feelings of isolation. “Lurking” – viewing without communicating – can have particularly negative consequences, research has found.
All this does not mean that Facebook in and of itself causes depression. But it points to a definite nexus between depressive feelings, comparing oneself to others, and excessive time spent on FB: the three tend to go hand in hand. With over a billion and a half active FB users today, that’s a huge global churn of depression, envy, frustration and anger.
What about you?
Have you ever been in a free fall of Facebook envy? Does looking at Facebook posts leave you feeling alone, depressed and woefully lacking in opportunities to post videos of your puppy doing the salsa? Do you suspect you might do bodily harm to the next “friend” who feels compelled to tell you and the rest of his FB world how high his kid scored in an inter-school Spelling Bee?
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Those who post their “good times” and “best selfie” pictures are not motivated by the desire to make their FB friends jealous, but rather by a need to compete and to keep up appearances. It all adds up to the ultimate mega-trend. Know that Facebook – and the huge performance space it offers its users – is not going away in a hurry. Nor is human nature – the craving for approval, the hunger for admiration. What we can do is to be aware of our own emotions, fight to stay centred and choose carefully how we react. Here are 4 ways to do that:
1. Stop beating up on yourself. The thought that you’re feeling envious, even resentful of your friends’ success, family fun and activities may make you feel small about yourself. The first thing to do is to address yourself with compassion. If a loved one were suffering from a painful emotion (such as envy or anger), you’d feel compassion for him or her, so why not for yourself?
2. Know that this is not the whole picture. This really is the key to staying grounded in your Facebook experience. If you interpret the reality of your friends’ lives in terms of their gushing FB posts, then it will seem that every one of them is having a marvelous time; that their children and spouses, while not perfect, are oh so close to it; that their lives are emblazoned with victory posts. But come on. Take a step back and you’ll realize that what you see on Facebook is not all there is to see. For every Facebook photo of a toothy child hugging his grinning dad, there is another scenario of dad dealing with that child’s volcanic tantrum that isn’t shared on Facebook. For every romantic picture of a couple walking on the beach, there are the run-ins over family finances that you don’t see. And for every “victory post,” there are ten times as many defeats, disappointments, and bouts with self-doubt. In other words, we’re bearing witness on Facebook not to our friends’ lives but to the carefully crafted, meticulously edited, “greatest hits” versions they want us to see.
Researchers have found that humans consistently overestimate how much fun others are having and underestimate their unhappiness. And where better is that mirrored than on Facebook? Since most Facebook friends are people we rarely if ever actually talk to (indeed, some of them we’ve barely even met), what else do we have to go on?
Envy tends to fade once you do consider the whole picture. Not a single one of us has a perfect life. We all have tough times, challenges, hardships and heartaches. The process of reality-checking is helped along by reviewing your own Facebook presence. Is it an accurate portrayal of the now-and-then loserdom that’s unavoidable in every life? Or are all the tidbits only upbeat and scintillating? If you didn’t know better, would you be writhing in envy at yourself as reflected in your FB posts? Then why feel that flutter of envious resentment each time you read about your friend losing yet another kilo in the last fortnight?
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Because (you might say), even allowing for the fact that a Facebook post is only a small byte of your friend’s life, still, a trip to Hawaii is a trip to Hawaii, and it’s happening to your friend and not to you. In the meantime, of course, quite unknown to you, your Hawaii-traipsing friend may be envying you your blessings as she struggles to cope with the mood swings of a son with bipolar. And she’s probably also feeling (just as you are feeling) that life is unfair – why should she be burdened with this misfortune while your kids, your family, is so put-together?
3. The bottom line: Your self-worth does not hinge on the click of a mouse. It’s not hard to see how all that Facebook sharing (or, more precisely, gloating) can chip away at the self-esteem of someone at the receiving end of those posts. Self-esteem takes a further dive when you compare responses to your friends’ posts and your own – when you see , for example, that a friend has got 200+ Likes on the picture of her kitten jumping hoops, while your own picture of your flowering cactus has trailed in only 5 Likes.
It’s worth asking yourself whether you can seriously base your self-worth on how many people hovered their mouse over a word and clicked – or did not click – a button. If you dived into a new DIY project – say, transferring a photo onto a slab of wood – did you enjoy the creative experience and did you like the end result? Yes? Then, hooray! Ten million “Likes” to you. Isn’t your own feel-good aura the most important approval rating there is?
4. Cut down – or simply cut it out. If all the above do not work for you, then you might want to try abstinence. It’s a fact that more people than you might imagine are actually cutting down on time spent on Facebook, and some have simply gone teetotal, slashing their FB time to zero, or nearabouts. As a game plan to eliminate Facebook envy, their strategy is backed by the findings of one of the most recent large studies conducted at the University of Copenhagen. The study found that users who took a week-long break from Facebook reported a statistically significant improvement in their levels of life satisfaction. The greatest improvement was reported by those who had felt the highest levels of Facebook envy. The extent of change was also related to how much time they had earlier spent on Facebook: the positive effect was greatest for heavy users.
If you decide to cut down or cut out your use of Facebook, you might find yourself (especially in the initial period) experiencing the urge to get back “just this once”. That is simply being human, and the way forward is to out-smart yourself. One FB addict who began by trying to go just 60 minutes without opening up her account, decided to fight the craving by first putting away her smart phone and resurrecting her old phone from the drawer she’d tossed it into. Jokingly, she called it her “dumb phone – the kind that’s only good for calling and texting”. But she still had access to Facebook on her computer. So, determined to see whether she could go just 1 hour without Facebook, she changed her Password to a long string of numbers and letters, not readily accessible to her memory, and logged out. Not only did she find it surprisingly easy to go 60 minutes, she also found herself hugely surprised at how much work she was able to get done in that hour. So, she then tried 3 hours. Difficult, but when she logged back on, she didn’t find she’d missed anything very interesting or important. Her next stab at abstinence, six hours, was torture – but as 5.59 hours ticked over into the last minute, she logged back in, and found – still, nothing spectacular. Yes, there was one friend posting some more pictures of his trip to Mexico, and another who’d finally got down to trying out that recipe for Sweet-and-Sour Mango Dip – but no can’t-miss posts at all. She went on from there to one entire FB-free day, then to a week, and realized along the way that, come to think of it, there never had been anything so terribly fascinating on Facebook after all. So she decided to shut down her FB account, telling herself she could always re-activate it – if she wanted to.
If you’re one of those people who sinks into a mire of depression and envy each time you log out of Facebook, set your timer for an hour and see what happens. Keep at it for a week and you might find that you “like” your life as you never did when it was Facebook pronouncing the verdict.
(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)