Is Everyone Happy but Me?

The true cost of living on Facebook.

Posted Apr 17, 2012

“Tim” was my neighbor in the high-rise I lived in a few years ago, someone I knew from chance encounters. At some point, I learned he had an important, high-profile job and I’d see him on television now and again, although he never mentioned his work.

What set him apart though, in a city of eight million, was something else. The customary salutation—“How are you?"—wouldn’t be answered by “Fine!” “Good!” “Great!” or anything perfunctory. No, what issued from Tim’s mouth was always a chorus of laments, tumbling into the quiet hallway: the fabulous river-view apartment lost in his divorce; his bad back; too much rain, snow, or heat; his problems with his girlfriend; the cold he couldn’t shake; the burden of alimony.

My then-teenage daughter and I dubbed him “Mr. Depressive” and did what we could to avoid him. To this day, I wonder whether his loquacity and his easy confidence were a function of too much psychotherapy or none at all.

But for all that we’re always reading that our contemporary times are defined by “oversharing,” Tim really was an exception. Tales of woe, it turns out, are rarely shared—a fact that has real consequences on both how we feel about ourselves and others.  

A series of studies conducted by Alexander H. Jordan and others among college students—aptly titled “Misery Has More Company Than People Think”—showed that people routinely overestimate how happy their peers are. The reasons are various, including that people rarely witness negative emotions firsthand, in part because people are happier in company (and tend to be alone when they’re sad or depressed) and the vast majority of us work hard at suppressing negative emotions in public. 

In their pilot study, they asked college students to estimate how often their peer group experienced four negative emotional experiences such as feeling depressed for a day, feeling very lonely on a weekend night, feeling sad or upset enough to cry, and feeling overwhelmed by schoolwork. It’s worth saying that anyone who ever went to college—no matter how long ago—remembers those feelings well.

Amazingly, while 78% of the respondents reported getting depressed, they thought that only 52% of their peers did. Ditto on loneliness: 56% had been lonely on a Saturday night but assumed that only 38% of their peers had the experience. And while 94% admitted feeling overwhelmed, they ascribed the feeling to only 78% of everyone else.

Another study demonstrated that while people consistently underestimated their peers’ negative experiences, they also overestimated how happy their peers were—thinking that their peers were going out more with friends and partying more than they actually were. 

And, while a huge amount of relatively inconsequential information is shared by people young and old through social media, studies show that the number of people in the United States who report that they confide in no one is actually growing. The number of close confidants per person has dropped since 1985 (from over three to two), and a full 25% of Americans say they confide in no one at all. Is isolation actually increasing in a culture of connectivity? Or, as Stephen Marche puts it in his piece in the May issue of The Atlantic, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”

I don’t think the relationship is causal, actually, but that doesn’t mean something isn’t happening. One thing is clear: Whatever emotional protocol has us feigning happiness in public settings is flourishing on Facebook. Among older users, the why of it is easy to ascertain; older people recognize Facebook as a public place and no one is likely to confess his or her generalized or specific angst in an open venue.

Take my “friends” on Facebook, some of whom are actually friends in the real world and on whom I have actually have the angst-filled down-and-dirty. Their posts limn a Life Well-Lived, lit by Abundant Happiness, complete with pictures of smiling, high-achieving children, gorgeous, weed-free gardens, and moments of personal or familial braggadocio. Judging from Facebook, I don’t know anyone who has a care in the world and that includes Me, Thank You Very Much.

That’s true, of course, among the Millennials and the younger set as well, who use Facebook to reflect the self they want to project, knowing all the while that they are performing in front of an audience, carefully crafting their status updates, and choosing photos.

But, along with other media, Facebook has changed certain life experiences for the so-called emerging young adults in ways that matter. I went to college knowing only two people on a campus with thousands of people on it; long-distance phone calls were expensive and I called home twice a month. I dove deep into a pool filled with strangers, as did everyone at the time. While nerve-wracking, it was also liberating and gave you the opportunity—if you wanted it—to leave past selves behind and start fresh. That’s not so easy nowadays.

Forty years later, my daughter went off to college “knowing” her roommate, the kids in her orientation session, and all of her classmates, thanks to Facebook. It was a remarkable difference. She didn’t “know know” them, as she said, but she could put a face to a name and knew enough about them—their hometowns, their interests, and whatever else they cared to share—to take the edge off and to feel that she wasn’t among strangers.

Before Facebook, young people left their high school friends behind as they scattered to new schools and places; now they take them along. Geographic distance from parents is more of a formality than a reality since Mom and Dad are just a ping away. It sounds all cozy and supportive—independence without the homesickness!—but it’s actually more complicated than that.

What, if anything, has Facebook cost these emerging adults? Are they missing a certain kind of resiliency that comes from making your way in unfamiliar circumstances? Instead of friending hundreds of people on Facebook, wouldn’t they learn more and grow more by spending that time in face-to-face conversation?

In a study just released this month, researchers Jenna Stephenson-Abetz and Amanda Holman looked at how Facebook has forced a renegotiation of the transition to college, asserting that Facebook has created a new dynamic to the processes of personal growth and self-invention with the active maintenance of old ties from high school and home. It’s worth remembering, as they point out, that most of the younger college students have been on Facebook since sixth grade. The question, they write, is “how to preserve a sense of self that connected to ‘home’ but still left room for independence, growth, and change.” 

Not surprisingly, the results revealed in first-person interviews are mixed, different reflections on the issues of separation and connection. While one student appreciates how being connected to his old friends assuages his homesickness, another comments that, “I feel like everyone in my hometown still knows everything about me just from my Facebook, which is kind of creepy. It definitely erases the line of moving away to college.”

Others struggle with forging a new self and new tastes, possibly alienating the friends at home, while still others hesitate to show their true selves on Facebook when the political or social views of their college friends are markedly different from those at home.

In the end, though, both authors—Millennials, both—conclude, “So while it could be argued that Facebook continually renews old feelings of time and place and creates a situation where students never really leave home, we believe that this is not the case. What Facebook allows is more avenues for communication with diverse groups of people in our relational lives.”

I’m not sure I agree. Does “friending” on Facebook actually expand your tastes and sensibilities? The answer is “no,” as research by Kevin Lewis and others shows. While the network may expand with superficial contacts, you’re unlikely to be influenced by them.

And, as Adriana Manago, Tamara Taylor, and Patricia Greenfield discuss in their article with the delicious title “Me and My 400 Friends,” what precisely do these superficial connections give you? Well, they give you an audience (the mean number of Facebook friends was 440, the median 370), and while that may make you feel better about yourself because you’re getting lots of attention, it doesn’t do much for depth of communication, which is a key to a relationship.

Seen from another point of view, the larger the network, the greater the number of people with whom a young adult has a superficial connection or none at all. How do you develop an authentic self if you’re always “on,” trying to impress as many people as possible?

The age at which kids are technically allowed to be on Facebook is 13 but it’s widely acknowledged that much younger kids are on it too. So, as time goes on, will we see just a larger crop of youngsters, focused on getting attention, with thousands of "friends” instead of hundreds? Will the number of Americans without a close confidant or confidante continue to grow, even as everyone is “happy” on Facebook? You tell me.


Jordan, Alexander, Benoit Monin, Carol Dweck, Benjamin Lovett, Oliver John and James Gross.”Misery has More Company than People Think: Underestimating the Prevalence of Others’ Negative Emotions.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37 (1), 120-135.

McPherson, Miller, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew Brashears. “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Dedades.”  American Sociological Review, 2006, vol.71 (June, 353-373)

Stephenson-Abetz, Jenna and Amanda Holman.  “Home is Where the Heart Is: Facebook and the Negotiation of ‘Old’ and ‘New’ in During Transition to College.” Western Journal of Communication, vol.76, no.2, March-April 2012, 1-19.

Lewis, Kevin, Marco Gonsalez, and Jason Kaufman. “Social selection and Peer Influence in an online social  network.” PNAS, (January 3, 2012), vol.109. no. 1

Manago Adriana, Tanara Taylor, and Patricia Greenfield. “Me and My 400 Friends: The Anatomy of College Students’ Facebook Networks, Their Communication Patterns, and Well-Being.” Developmental Psychology, 2012, vol. 48, no. 2, 369-380.