(Facebook)

It’s human nature to seek simple solutions to complex, intractable problems. That’s why we have fad diets and Luminosity and so-called “magic” supplements.

It’s also why people love studies about Facebook and unhappiness. Feeling sad? Overwhelmed? Jealous? Stressed? The solution is soooooo unbelievably simple: Just get off the Internet!

[A top philosopher’s argument for signing off social media]

The latest prescription of this sort comes from a Danish think tank called the Happiness Research Institute, which this week published a new report on the connection between Facebook use and basically every negative emotion a human can feel. After recruiting a group of 1,095 Danish Facebook-users, the HRI asked half to give the site up for a week, and half to keep using it as normal. They then asked everyone to evaluate their happiness and satisfaction, and compared the groups’ results.

Behind door No. 1, the Facebook users: greater rates of anger, worry, sadness, depression, loneliness.

Behind door No. 2, the digital detoxers: higher rates of happiness and enthusiasm, better social lives, fewer problems with concentration.


(Happiness Research Institute)

From this data, you might conclude that quitting Facebook is a quick-and-easy way to turn your life around. And in fact, a lot of people have already come to that conclusion (!). But it ignores the fact that, oh, HRI only looked at a one-week period, and it only surveyed the (unusually happy) Danes, and it’s unclear what their methods were for self-reporting happiness, and it didn’t establish a causative relationship either way.

On top of that, there is a whole lot of very serious academic research going into the issue of Facebook and well-being, and their conclusions are, well … unpleasantly complicated. In the past year alone, in fact, researchers have found that Facebook browsing generally provokes more positive feelings than negative ones, and that leaving Facebook actually stresses people out. (They’re worried about losing their social ties, or “missing out.”)

[When it is and isn’t okay to be on your smartphone: The conclusive guide]

But these things don’t hold for everybody; after all, there are more than a billion people on Facebook. A lot of people do indeed get bummed out using the social network. But those negative feelings seem to relate more to individual personality than to an inherent characteristic of the network itself: controlling for introversion and enviousness, for instance, often cancels out Facebook’s perceived negative effects.

In August, a paper on problematic Facebook use — a.k.a., the kind of excessive browsing that makes you feel drained afterwards — might be prompted by unhappiness and low life satisfaction, not the other way around. And a longitudinal study published last April found that passive Facebook users experience declines in well-being over time, but active ones do not.

The bottom line here is that you get out of Facebook what you put into it, much like anything else in life. (The Internet is not immune from the usual laws of common sense — surprise!) If you’re a cranky person, or a jealous person, or someone who doesn’t much like interacting with large groups, you could probably do without Facebook.

But for every other stressed/overwhelmed person in the world? Unplugging is not, alas, the quick fix you might’ve heard it was.

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