Facebook used to be a source of amusement and happiness—why else would 483 million people check in daily? But if you find your news feed to be more of a bummer with each passing day, you’re not alone.
In a study presented at the recent Society for Personality and Social Psychology meeting, researchers asked a sample group of Facebook users between the ages of 18 and 65 to read some of their friends’ status updates. Afterward, those Facebook users rated their lives as much less satisfying than people who didn’t check their news feed first.
The reason: Much of how we judge our success in life is based on how we stack up against our peers. “The problem is that Facebook gives us a limited view of our friends’ lives, and that view tends to be unrealistically positive,” says study author Dilney Goncalves, Ph.D., a professor at IE Business School in Madrid. As a result, you subconsciously start to believe that everyone is living a cooler, more exciting life than you are. This effect is magnified when you don’t know your “friend” personally because your perception of his or her life is based exclusively on a (somewhat bogus) Facebook profile. And make no mistake: Perception is everything in social media—find out what Your Facebook Picture Says About You.
The more friends you have, Goncalves adds, the more likely you are to spend your day enviously reading about someone’s paradise vacation, new girlfriend, or job promotion. The study also revealed that having 354 Facebook friends seemed to be the tipping point after which people were increasingly less happy with their lives.
Goncalves recommends unsubscribing from your most prolific braggarts and fine-tuning your news feed. You can choose to read all updates from a friend, downgrade to a smaller portion of their updates, or view only what Mark Zuckerberg’s voodoo determines to be their “most important” posts.
Another option: Cut ties with excess acquaintances to reduce your stream to best buds only. That means your dentist, your freshman year hall-mate, and your overbearing ex all get the ax. After you’ve reached a comfortable count, “learning about the success of your closest friends can actually make you happier,” Goncalves says. If that still doesn’t put a smile on your face, try these instant mood-lifters:
Dinner may be the easiest way to improve your mood. Two-thirds of people say a good meal in a calm environment is a major source of happiness, according to the Journal of Happiness Studies. Avoid the burger-land franchises. "Fast-food restaurants are depressing places," says Christopher Peterson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. "Even the people who work there are demoralized." Check out Restaurant Meals, Made Awesome to learn how to make your favorite restaurant dishes at home—cheaper, healthier, and tastier!
According to the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, text message addicts are less satisfied with their lives than people who use conventional communications. Instant messaging isn't as good at building the strong relationships that sustain happiness, says Melanie Green, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina. Even e-mail is better. And, of course, face-to-face communication is best.
Dutch researchers found that city dwellers living near parks and gardens were 25 percent less likely to be diagnosed with depression than those with nary a patch of grass in sight. Study author Jolanda Maas, Ph.D., says that frequent exposure to nature may help people recover from stress and mental fatigue.
Instead of "having," focus on "doing." Investing money in experiences makes people happier than buying material possessions can, according to the journal Review of General Psychology. The thrill of a big purchase fades, but the social relationships built during an adventure endure.
Gratitude is a huge predictor of happiness, and showing it verbally makes a big difference. "It changes your mindset," says Peterson. "We take the good for granted, but if the bad is all we pay attention to, life is going to be a very grim business." However, saying thank you boosts mood by making you more aware of good things in life. And it has a sustained effect if you say it on a regular basis. On a related note: Thanks, Mom! For everything.
One last note about Facebook: Go ahead, shed some friends, but there's no reason to go cold turkey. Other studies have revealed plenty of benefits to social networking. It can help facilitate civic and political participation, or example, and it allows you to stay more connected with family members and true friends. Just pace yourself—if you update your status twice a day or more, you might be a narcissist. Read Are You Too Full of Yourself? to find out!
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Additional writing and reporting by Denny Watkins