Does Facebook Conspire against Happiness?


What’s the key to happiness? How can we become as happy as those who live in Nordic countries -“the happiest in the world” – according to the United Nations’ World Happiness Report 2013? One of the keys is not comparing ourselves to everyone else.

Improving people’s quality of life and their happiness is not easy. Happiness depends on many factors that are often beyond the reach of individuals (despite the many self-help books that promise otherwise).  Quality of Life, a book edited by the IDB, evaluated many of the factors that make Latin Americans happy and found many expected results. Latin Americans care about the discipline, security, and physical appearance of the schools where their children study (though the schools’ educational quality appears not to have the expected effect); the flexibility, autonomy, respect, and opportunity for self-development that they experience at work (not so much their guarantees of stability and others benefits); as well as the safety of their neighborhoods and access to good public transport and public goods.

Money doesn’t buy happiness but it definitely helps, as higher income leads to greater life satisfaction. But, unfortunately, improvements in material well-being only matter in relation to those around us. In other words, it doesn’t matter as much how one’s own situation has improved as that it has improved in relation to others. This situation results in a “paradox of unhappy growth” for those who have improved their own situation without having improved it in comparison with others.

Social networks can be a vehicle for magnifying comparisons and reducing happiness. Recent studies confirm that the use of Facebook, despite – or thanks to – its great popularity, tends to have negative effects on the probability of its users feeling happy. Kross et al (2013) conducted an experimental design study in which they asked a group of individuals about their subjective well-being, how they felt at the moment and how satisfied they were with their lives. The study found that the individuals’ exposure to Facebook led to strongly negative changes in those variables. The more people used Facebook, the worse they felt. Verduyn et al (2015) again used an  experimental design  study and advanced further in determining the mechanism by which that loss of happiness occurs: jealousy.

Why is Facebook so relevant? Facebook makes it easier for people to systematically compare their economic and personal situation with that of their peers. Being a constant witness to images depicting others’ personal and professional triumphs, trips, sporting achievements, and even the skill of their pets, doesn’t seem to boost self-esteem much.

In the Latin American context, what is this social network’s impact? According to the  Pew Research Center, Internet users in developing countries have embraced socialization as their preferred type of digital activity. More than 80 percent of Latin Americans use the Internet to participate in social networks. Many of them –though to a lesser degree— also use cyberspace to gather information on politics, health care, and to a lesser extent, government services. Less common is the use of the medium for commercial and professional activities, like the search for work, making and receiving payments, purchasing goods and taking classes on line.

pEWREVEIW Additionally, taking into account the Internet’s exponential growth, Facebook projects that by 2016 it will have 256.3 million users in Latin America. In a region with enormous problems of inequality, Facebook makes these inequalities even more palpable, a reality to which the users of cyberspace are hardly indifferent.

What is the solution? One possibility, to which many economists subscribe, is that if we are concerned with Facebook’s effect on happiness and want to have fewer jealous people we should impose a tax on it (see Marginal Revolution). It is something that many governments in the region with limited access to financing might welcome. Of course, Facebook, like other social networks, also provides many benefits, principally in the spreading and democratization of information. Another solution, to which behavioral economists subscribe, is forcing Facebook to put a warning –similar to what one finds on cigarette packages or alcoholic products — highlighting contraindications:  “the continuous use of Facebook can result in a loss of happiness.”

Beyond the measures taken for us, the key to happiness appears to lie in two fundamental factors. On one hand, understanding that in using Facebook one is but a spectator of an edited reality containing a summary of the best moments in the life of others. On the other hand, limiting its use to a few moments a day.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, what some self-help books say is not so mistaken: valuing what you have instead of comparing it to what others have can take you far. Otherwise, in this digital era, it would seem that the key to being “truly happy” in Latin America depends on who we are friends with on Facebook.


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The Author

Carlos Scartascini

Carlos Scartascini

Carlos Scartascini is Leader of the IDB Behavioral Economics Group and Principal Technical Leader at the Research Department of the Inter-American Development Bank. He is currently focused on expanding the use of behavioral economics at the IDB and leading many field experiments with governments in Latin America and the Caribbean. His current research focuses on the role of messages and methods of communication to affect behavior and demand for public policy. In addition to Behavioral Economics, his areas of expertise include Political Economy and Public Finance. He has published seven books and more than 35 articles in edited volumes and specialized journals. He is Associate Editor of the academic journal Economía. A native of Argentina, Carlos holds a Ph.D. and a M.A. in Economics from George Mason University.

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