We all know them. People who, at least according to their Facebook status updates, are enjoying a blissful life of love, success, and of course fine dining.
It's fun to live vicariously through following their posts: the accomplishments of their children, their athletic prowess ("Here I am atop Mount Everest!"), and mouthwatering photographs of that perfect steakhouse prime cut, cooked to perfection.
What a blessed life, you might think. But — is it real?
Maybe you don’t care, because you enjoy virtually experiencing the adventures of your Facebook friends as a method of escape. But if you find yourself comparing your own life to those of the people you follow, and are feeling inadequate, be assured that real life is often very different than what is portrayed online.
Think of Facebook as more of a highlights reel, rather than a live cam.
But apparently, according to research, it depends on what someone is sharing. Someone in crisis whose posts read more like a lowlights reel than a boast and brag session might be more authentically sharing their current state of well-being, and life satisfaction.
Facebook Posts and Psychological State
Facebook is a platform where people share their lives, both the good and the bad.
It's a place people go to express happiness, as well as grief.
A place to share both success and setbacks. But some users exaggerate or misrepresent — whether intentionally or inadvertently, in deciding what to post. An interesting area of examination is whether people are more likely to overstate the good, or the bad.
Pan Liu et al. in "Do Facebook Status Updates Reflect Subjective Well-Being?" (2015) studied exactly that question, probing the link between posted content and psychological state.
Examining Facebook status updates, they investigated the extent to which users’ posts reflected their subjective well-being (SWB) — specifically, reported life satisfaction.
This is an important analysis, as they recognize that SWB is a significant measurement of quality of life, linked to everything from social relationships, to income, to health.
Interestingly, Liu et al. (ibid.) found that positive expressions of emotion were not correlated with life satisfaction, but negative emotional expressions were — as long as they were within the past 9-10 months. They note that these findings suggest that Facebook users’ SWB are reflected through both the time frame, and the nature of emotional expressions in Facebook status updates.
Positivity and Popularity
If you use Facebook, Instagram, or other popular social media, you likely follow others who create positive content. We enjoy uplifting posts, Tweets, and photos, and would rather be entertained and inspired than read material that leaves us anxious or depressed.
Liu et al.(supra) note that although past studies have demonstrated that positive emotion is related to SWB, as noted above, they found expressions of positive emotion in Facebook status updates to be unrelated to life satisfaction.
They point out this is likely due to something most people recognize instinctively, or at least suspect to be true: the power of presentation — cultivating a positive social image through impression management strategies.
In their study, Facebook users employed positive emotional words twice as often as negative words. Consider the impact of this practice on other users.
Are you more or less likely to follow the updates of someone who is consistently expressing positivity over pessimism?
Because we are influenced at least in part through the company we keep and the content we view, query whether or not we might rather follow others that display content that boosts our mood.
For some users, Facebook is a place of transparency; a platform to share both the good and the bad. For others, Facebook is a stage, where all news is good news.
But before you worry that your life pales in comparison to what your friends showcase online, consider that you might only be seeing one side of their "Face" — the good side.
This column was originally published in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick, JD, MDiv, PhD, is an award-winning career trial attorney and media commentator. She is host of “Live with Dr. Wendy” on KCBQ, and a daily guest on other media outlets, delivering a lively mix of flash, substance, and style. Her over 4,500 media appearances include major news outlets including CNN, Fox News Channel, HLN, FOX Business Network, and weekly appearances on Newsmax. She is author of Red Flags (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House, revision). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, is a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony, and plays the electric violin professionally with a rock band. Read Dr. Wendy L. Patricks's Reports — More Here
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