Apparently, there's some reasonable conjecture that the more socially connected we are, the unhappier we get.
The rise of Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and all the rest would, you'd think, leave us feeling more certain of our place in the world, and (being social primates) you'd think that'd lead to a greater sense of happiness. Two studies, one old and one new, seem to indicate exactly the opposite.
The older is a fascinating idea that, despite its publication twenty years ago, I only ran into recently. It's called the Friendship Paradox (here's a recent article about the idea), and is the discovery that the statement that "most of my friends have more friends than I do" is apparently statistically true. Sociologist Scott Feld noted the commonness of this claim, and wondered if it was just a perceptual bias related to inaccurate self-image, or was actually a real phenomenon.
It turned out to be the latter, and the proof of it requires abstruse mathematics that I am incapable of understanding, much less explaining, but an example might suffice to illustrate the idea. Let's say we have 50 people in a (rather artificial) social group. One of the 50 knows all of the others; two of them know half of the others; and the remaining 47 only know two of the others, each. What is the perception of each person's friends, regarding the number of people each of them knows?
Well, of our 47 subjects who only know two people each, all of them know the top dog who knows everyone, and the other person each of them knows has to be one of the two people who know half of the group. Therefore, for those 47, it is literally true that both of their friends have more friends than they do -- by a large margin. Even the two who know half of the group know each other, and the guy who knows everyone. So in this admittedly unrealistic scenario, almost everyone's mean number of friends of friends is greater than their number of friends.
It works any time you have a network with multiply interconnected nodes. Chances are, your professional contacts have more contacts than you do; the people you've had sex with have had more partners than you have; your connections in social networks have more connections than you have; and so on. But it has nothing to do with being a loser (as the title of the article humorously implies) -- it's a purely statistical phenomenon.
The other study, that just came out last week (described here), was done by Utah Valley University sociologists Hui-Tzu Grace Chou and Nicholas Edge, and involved people's perceptions of their own happiness, vis-à-vis social networks. They took 425 students, and asked them to rate their level of agreement or disagreement with a variety of statements like, "I am usually a happy person," "Life is fair," and Many of my friends have a better life than me." And they analyzed the results as a function of how many "friends" each of the student had on Facebook, and how many hours a day each of them spent on the site.
The rather interesting result is that the more "friends" on Facebook you have, the more you tend to rate your own life as substandard. "Those who have used Facebook longer agreed more that others were happier, and agreed less that life is fair, and those spending more time on Facebook each week agreed more that others were happier and had better lives," Chou and Edge wrote. "Furthermore, those that included more people whom they did not personally know as their Facebook 'friends' agreed more that others had better lives."
The speculation is that because of the fact that most people's photographs on Facebook show them doing happy, fun, social things, the more you look at those photographs, the more you tend to think your own life sucks. I wonder, though, if this explanation is right, or might be committing that cardinal sin of mistaking correlation for causation -- it may be that unhappier, more socially awkward people may take the avenue of socializing online rather face-to-face, thus leading to the result that heavy Facebook users, especially those who friend relative strangers, are less satisfied.
In any case, the whole thing had a painfully personal touch for me, because in the last year I've been trying to market my e-published fiction (available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, if you're interested) through such social networking sites as Twitter, and my continual sense is that all of the other authors I've bumped into this way, and there have been a lot, (1) have had way more success than I have, (2) have more contacts than I do, and (3) get way more responses from people when they post than I do. This has elicited many bouts of highly unbecoming self-pity on my part, so I suppose it's a comfort to know that what I'm experiencing is hardly unusual. My perception of the numbers of contacts that these other authors have is just another example of the Friendship Paradox; and my perception of their success is due to the Facebook-photograph phenomenon, to wit, you wouldn't likely post on Twitter, "Wow! My book didn't sell any copies at all this week! Yay!", preferentially weighting Tweets toward messages that are more positive than what most of us are feeling most of the time.
I guess this might pull me out of the Slough of Despond to some extent, but maybe what I really need to do is what the Chou and Edge article suggests -- turn off the damn computer and go visit some friends.