Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Well-Being

Why does everyone else have more fun than I do? How social media can make us unhappy

By Janina Steinmetz, Brittany Christian


Despite the ubiquity of social media such as Facebook, we know very little about the psychological consequences of frequently using such platforms. On the one hand, being in touch with friends and family and getting a glimpse of what our old high-school friends are doing can make us feel connected and as part of a meaningful community. On the other hand, watching others get promoted, have children, or go on great vacations may make us feel like our own lives lack the glamour and success that everyone else seems to have. Comparing ourselves to others on Facebook might make us envious and undermine our sense of purpose in life.

Image ©: Denis Dervisevic  2010

Recent research by Philippe Verduyn from the University of Leuven, Belgium, and several colleagues from the University of Michigan investigated what the use of Facebook does to our life satisfaction and happiness. Specifically, these researchers wanted to know whether passive consumption of Facebook, that is, merely looking at others’ news and profiles without posting something, makes people unhappy due to the envy they may experience. To address this question, participants were text-messaged five times a day over the course of several weeks, and with each text message they were asked to report their Facebook usage since the last message. Importantly, participants needed to distinguish active usage (e.g., posting something and chatting with people) from passive usage (e.g., browsing others’ profiles and news). In addition, participants answered questions about their current happiness, envy, and well-being. What the researchers found should make you think twice the next time you feel like browsing your Facebook news feed: Passive use of Facebook makes people feel more envious, and this feeling of envy reduces well-being in that moment. In other words, by making us feel envious of other people, Facebook use can diminish our well-being. One reason why this might be the case is that Facebook conveys the sunny side of everyone’s life, their great news and fun activities, whereas the tedious and boring aspects of everyday life are largely invisible on Facebook. While other people are travelling to exotic places and always look great, all we are seemingly doing is follow our same old daily routine. This bias towards positive and impressive information found on Facebook may be an important cause of the envy and unhappiness people can experience.

In a similar vein, research from NPP member Elisabeth Dunn and colleagues shows that people may envy others’ for their money and may overestimate the happiness that more money can bring. It seems that people often see the lives of others’ as more successful and exciting than their own because they focus on only the aspects that they themselves don’t compare well to. However, maybe it can help us to review all the beautiful pictures and happy updates we have posted in the past, to make us remember what we have accomplished, and to fill us again with a sense of purpose and meaning in life.


Janina Steinmetz is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Brittany Christian is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Well-Being

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