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Facebook and Happiness

Studies on passive Facebook use and affective well-being

Does Facebook make us unhappy?

Does viewing it regularly negatively affect our well-being?

Well, if you use Facebook passively, that is, you don’t post much and mostly just read what others put up there, a new study suggests you may experience a decrease in affective well-being, even over time. Previous studies have suggested as much but haven’t identified an explanation. A new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology points to envy as what is increased through, at least, passive Facebook usage.

Controlling for active Facebook use, non-Facebook online social network usage, and direct social interactions, the authors of Passive Facebook Usage Undermines Affective Well-Being: Experimental and Longitudinal Evidence replicated the predictions of earlier studies and identified the role of envy by using experience sampling-techniques. The full study is here.

So, should we be very careful of using Facebook passively, lest we too succumb to a similar decline?

As a virtue ethicist, it’s hard to imagine taking the results of such studies in that way.

There is, after all, how we do or can react to things and how we should react to things.

It would be very easy to use Facebook to feel bad about yourself, especially if your “affect” depends on others doing somehow “no better” or “worse” than you perceive that you are doing. But ethics can tell you it is wrong to get happiness like that. (I've written more about this here.)

Traditional virtue ethics argues that the kind of affect you get from avoiding things that make you envious won't ever amount to happiness. Since ancient times, moralists have argued against defaulting to thinking that how others fare is relevant to how you are faring.

Yes, social psychologists accumulate data to show how much the relative position of others impacts us. But nothing like that can replace the thinking we need to do about our personal goals and the kind of person we want to be.

Virtue ethics maintains that envy is mistaken because it is “pain over good things.” We ought to wish well to others. But of course we don't begin by doing that. We have to really work at it. It is difficult and taxing to become a good person, the sort who lacks envy. But pursuing true happiness would involve working on benig the kind of person who isn’t affected by envy.

The ever-braggy Facebook could be a kind of proving ground, in that case. As I've written about before, Facebook can challenge us by asking: how generous and happy for others can you be?

Let me suggests these claims:

  • Envy is not moral.
  • Your (true) happiness does not depend on wishing others would do less well and is not compatible with envy.
  • You should stop being envious.

Someone might argue we can never change how we react, but that would be difficult to prove in the face of how much practical experience we each have in overcoming things like envy.

Epictetus puts it this way: Is anyone preferred before you at an entertainment, or in a compliment, or in being admitted to a consultation?

If these things are good, you ought to be glad that he has gotten them; and if they are evil, don't be grieved that you have not gotten them.

It's not yet how we react to vacation pictures and beautiful families, but it might be important that this represents how we should react.

Avoiding Facebook is not just a way of avoiding others but a way of avoiding parts of ourselves. That's another way to put it.

And maybe, for some periods of time, that's just strategic. But I'd guess that long term, the same reasons we found for avoiding Facebook would get in our way again and again.

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