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Meghan Daum: Do you suffer from Facebook envy?

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.

March 10, 2011|Meghan Daum

Does looking at Facebook leave you feeling alone, depressed and woefully lacking in opportunities to post videos of your kitten drinking from the toilet? Do you feel like no one likes you, let alone "likes" you? Do you suspect you might do bodily harm to the next "friend" who feels compelled to tell you and his 900 other close pals how high his kid scored on the SAT?

Then you might have Facebook envy.

Since January, when the journal Personality and Social Psychiatry Bulletin published a paper about our perceptions of other people's contentment levels, it's the malady of the moment — or at least the perfect catchphrase for describing the less-than-friendly feelings we harbor toward certain online acquaintances. Drawing on studies of Stanford students and their assumptions about the relative happiness or unhappiness of their peers, researchers found that humans consistently overestimate how much fun others are having and underestimate their unhappiness.

The study had nothing to do with Facebook, but it quickly became associated with the coinage "Facebook envy," largely because the lead researcher, then a doctoral student in psychology, reportedly got the idea from watching his friends' interactions with the social network.

The more time they spent clicking through joyful announcements and photos depicting happy events, the worse they felt about their own lives.

It's not hard to see how Facebook might chip away at a person's self-esteem. Though celebrated — breathlessly revered, in fact — as a way to bring people together, anyone who's poked around the site for more then 10 minutes knows it's also the ultimate performance space. Like holiday newsletters in which families pay unsubtle homage to their own achievements — "Dakota won 57 taekwondo trophies!" "Sophie took summer courses in cheese making!" "Bob passed an impressive kidney stone!" — Facebook reminds us that there can be a fine line between sharing and gloating.

Sure, some of us manage to leave our egos out of it, limiting our posts to YouTube videos of dogs riding skateboards or birthday wishes to friends whose birthdays we'd be totally unaware of if Facebook didn't automatically remind us. Most of us, though, are just hungry for admiration. We post videos from family outings in the hope that people will notice what a functional, loving and attractive clan we are. We chime in with faux self-deprecating quips about the supposedly quotidian details of our lives: "Note to self: When skiing double black diamond runs, do not simultaneously attempt stock transaction over cellphone. Reception is dicey!"

Since most Facebook users participate in such shenanigans, you'd think we wouldn't take them seriously. But like the students in the Stanford studies, who seemed predisposed to assuming that everyone else had it better than they did, a lot of us have simply become accustomed to clicking through the highlights of someone's life and assuming it's an accurate reflection of the whole thing.

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?

We see the weddings and the graduations, the exotic trips and the newly renovated kitchens. We see the baby laughing rather than throwing a tantrum. We see the dog performing a trick rather than digging up the yard. In other words, we're bearing witness not to our friends' lives but to the carefully crafted "greatest hits" versions they want us to see.

Not that knowing this necessarily mitigates the resentment. An exotic vacation is an enviable thing no matter how many months of soul-crushing drudgery came before and after. But before you simply accept that your serotonin levels are going to go down a notch each time you read about how someone else ran 18 miles before breakfast, perhaps you'd do well to review your own Facebook presence.

Is it an accurate portrayal of the bleak loserdom that's unavoidable in every life? Or do all the photos make you look thin and are all the tidbits only scintillating? If you didn't know better, would you be writhing in envy at yourself?

If the answer is yes, you've got nothing to worry about.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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