Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Imaginary Friends and Happiness

I’m taking an extended Facebook sabbatical. It was just too draining for me right now. I think anyone who is going through any sad life event has no business being on the internet.

You know who else thinks so? Science, bitch!

OK, first a disclaimer: I really like some parts of Facebook. I’ve reconnected with some people I’ve let drift away. I get a kick of looking at the pictures of the kids, the weddings, the new puppy. And nothing is more fun than a Facebook birthday. Facebook isn’t inherently bad or good. But like most everything else in life, it does have a direct and measurable impact on us.

Research has shown--over and over--that the number of friends you have in social networks is inversely proportional to your happiness. Meaning the person who has 500 “friends” is actually in a worse psychological state than the person who has 100. The more “friends” you have, the lonelier you actually are.

Let’s first define friends vs. “friends.” Friends are the small handful of people that you can count on to bring you chicken soup when you are sick, offer to puncture the tires of the asshole who cheated on you, or help you up after you’ve fallen off your barstool. Once they have stopped laughing, of course.

“Friends” post pictures of their fabulous vacation on a tropical beach. You browse through them while sitting in your cubicle farm. They declare new relationships and new jobs with gusto, but rarely promote when they get laid off or dumped. You just had to change your status back to Single. They write about how their daughter got a 4.0 on her report card. You got called into school because your son was rapping a Flo Rida song during recess.

(Yes, this happened. I told Kidlet that if he does it again, he better do it in French. Yep. Mother of the Year here.)

I think you probably see the distinction. Studies have found that most people have 3 to 5 friends. Yet people collect Facebook “friends” as if they got frequent flyer miles for each new like.

A Stanford study found that social network users were particularly bad at reading the mood of “friends.” And they end up feeling sad or depressed because of that. Because Facebook makes you feel like shit. You log on and see everyone leading a perfect life. The one you aren’t having.

A University of Michigan study charted the daily depression levels of subjects as they surfed through social media. Not only did social media fuel users' depression, it fueled their narcissism. How’s that for a one-two punch.

Researchers at the University of Gothenburg found that users who spend more time on Facebook have lower self-esteem. Yeah, because what we all need is lower self-esteem. Real life is just not quite harsh enough.

In our evolved, literate, computer-savvy brains, we know that people share the good things in their life. Most people don’t post that they backed into a mailbox or forgot to pay their credit card bill. We don’t disclose those daily, mundane occurrences. We don’t hear about the challenges in the lives of “friends.” And that leaves our small, reptilian id feeling like we are the only person on earth that pulled off that hangnail, when we know we should have just waited to clip it.

And Facebook does nothing but encourage this. Until they include a Hate button, right next to the Like button, posts are going to be vacuous and meaningless. Social media preys on our need to keep up with the Jones. To not feel left out.

I’m totally geeking out over this little finding:  Science says humans don’t really have more than 150 friends. For real. It’s something called the Dunbar number, calculated by anthropologist Robin Dunbar by studying holiday cards. No joke.

His research showed that about a quarter of cards went to relatives, nearly two-thirds to friends, and 8 percent to colleagues. The total number of people receiving cards? 153.5.

(This number includes all members of a family that might receive a single card from you. So, a card addressed to your brother, his wife, and their two kids counts as 4 people that you care about.)

Dunbar categorizes these friends like this:  the inner circle friends that will bail you out at 3:00 am. One step from them are the friends you will invite to your annual 4th of July picnic. Then there are the friends of friends: your bestie’s mom. Your significant other’s aforementioned brother. Then there are the coworkers, neighbors, and your friend at the gym.

Aside—I think most derby girls would say that each one of their teammates would bail them out. Truth is, they are more likely sitting in the cell with them. Probably still wearing skates. Both our circles and our thighs are a bit bigger than average.

So, there is your core group of Friends. The Dunbar number. “Friends” are nothing but a collection of names, validating your social status and reassuring yourself that you can sit at the cool table during lunch. Science!

Having a ton of Facebook “friends” doesn’t mean you are popular. It means you are lonely and isolated. And here is the real rub: If your “friends” post happy news, you feel sad because you think they are having the better life than you. If they post sad news, you are sad because… well, because it is sad news. You cannot win.

So how do you stay connected with friends? First you evaluate the people in your online circles and sort them into friend or “friend.” Cull the “friends.” Then step away from your screen and connect. It is really quite simple. Make a phone call. Arrange a coffee date. Go fall off some barstools.


  1. my wife often talks about having a day of TRUTH on Facebook:

    "for the thousandth time, i have NO INTEREST in playing Candy f**kin' Crush"
    "you should filter and edit the photos you put up - no-one needs to see 30 overlit pictures of the same shot of your kids"
    "i'm so glad you're going on holiday with your husband, have a great time - remind me: isn't this the guy who has cheated on you twice, the last time just after the birth of your second child? I'm pretty sure you revealed this to all your friends and business contacts... on FACEBOOK"

    y'know stuff like that...

    (any relation to actual real life events is entirely non-coincidental)

    1. Steve, we need to create the Facebook Truth page immediately!