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Your Friends On Facebook Are Secretly Manipulating Your Emotions

What would you do if you could peer into the lives of over a billion people—inner thoughts, emotions, behavior triggers? What information would you look for? And when you found it, what would you do with it?

That sounds like the plot line from some yet-to-be produced science fiction film, but it’s the real question data scientists at Facebook ask themselves each day. They have limitless access to the world’s biggest database of people—and their daily communications—to mine for deep insights into the psychology of what drives us, our fears, and why we behave the way we do.

And that access is exactly what one Facebook employee, along with two university researchers, took advantage of recently to disprove a common belief about how we ought to pick our friends.

If you have a Facebook account, their findings could have a big effect on how you live every day.

Keep reading to learn about the study and, more importantly, what to do about it.

Does Facebook Make You Sad?

We all know what Facebook is for—making your life look better than it really is, right?

It’s a common criticism of any form of social media. You get to filter your life and choose what you do and don’t share with your friends, so most choose to share only the best parts and filter out the “less attractive” bits.

  • You share pictures of your epic vacation, but leave out the epic fight where you didn’t talk to your spouse for three days halfway through it.
  • You squeal about closing on your new home, but fail to mention you had to pick up extra hours at a job you hate to afford it.
  • You post fun and hilarious updates of what your kid just said, but you never really talk about how you gave up your career to have him or occasionally feel completely overwhelmed by parenthood.

The Internet is where you go to present the very best side of yourself; no warts allowed!

You try to remind yourself of this on a bad day when it seems like EVERYONE ELSE IS JUST $%*#& GREAT! But, you can’t help but feel like everyone else is fabulous and your life is in shambles.

There’s even some limited research—Facebook makes you sad.

But, is that all there is to it? Interacting with people online makes you sad and less satisfied? Not according to a recent study by Facebook data scientists. What they found—along with what we already know about the psychology of how we relate to each other—is that if Facebook makes you sad, you might just be “doing it wrong.”

And, if you do it right, Facebook might actually make you a happier person. Here’s how.

Facebook Science: Debunking A Common Happiness Myth

So, the logic goes like this: If reading about how great everyone’s life is makes me dissatisfied with my own (and I don’t want to just give up social media), I should look for friends who share the bad parts of their lives, so I can commiserate with them. I’ll be happy because we have something in common.

Wrong! According to a recent, internal study conducted by a Facebook data scientist—in partnership with researchers from Cornell—you should actually do the opposite. You should look for even more uber-positive friends sharing about how epic their lives are.

Why? They gathered nearly 700,000 (!) active Facebook profiles (maybe you were one of them) and manipulated the status updates you saw based on which of three groups you were lumped into. The first was a control group; their feed wasn’t manipulated at all. The second group’s feeds were altered to show more updates with a positive sentiment. The third was the opposite. Their feeds were manipulated to display more updates with a negative sentiment.

Then, the researches studied the posting behaviors of the groups. What they found was pretty astonishing.

Previous research tells us that seeing happy things on Facebook makes us sad. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves. But this study says our actions say something different. The Facebook researchers found that the more you saw positive content, the more you posted positive content yourself. And the more negative content you saw, the more you posted negative updates.

If all your friends were raving, you raved, too. If they were commiserating, so were you. This jibes well with what we already know about proximity effect and how susceptible you are to the behaviors of those around you.

Don’t risk being sad! If you want to be happier over the long-term, you should actually pay more attention to friends who are nauseatingly positive. And if you don’t feel happier right away, give it time. As the famous Jerry Sternin quoted in his book, The Power of Positive Deviance, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.”

Do This In The Next 10 Minutes

So, here’s what to do next to be sure you’re surrounding yourself with the right people online who’ll make you happier and inspire you to live bigger and more adventurously.

  1. Only friend people you know offline. When you know someone offline, you know more about them than the little bits you see on Facebook. Knowing the details of their life will help you combat that initial sad feeling that can come from seeing only positive updates. You’ll know some of the more intimate details already.
  2. Filter what you see. Thanks to social norms, there are some friends, family, etc. you just can’t get away from online. Just because you’re “friends” with them doesn’t mean you have to pay attention to them, though! Filter ruthlessly, and hide updates from anyone who consistently posts negative messages.
  3. Post positive things, even when you’re feeling down. Again, lead yourself by example. If you want to feel happy, start by acting happy; the rest will follow. You’ll also be providing a boost to those who pay attention to what you have to say.

What do you think about all this? Do you believe the research? Ever experienced the sadness that comes with “social comparison”? How do you deal with it?