When a paper in a recent issue of "Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin" revealed that college students routinely overestimated the happiness of their peers, some people (including the researchers themselves) pointed to a familiar culprit: social media.
The theory is that most of us only present our best selves on outlets such as Twitter and Facebook. Call it reality denial or – to reference a 1990s cartoon – “happy happy joy joy” syndrome.
When these streams of positivity combine on your Facebook wall, it amounts to a swollen river of shiny happy people. After scrolling through posts detailing the perfect cupcakes a friend has cooked for her daughter’s birthday party, the darling video of your nephew’s preschool program and the vacation photos from your coworker’s Caribbean cruise, it can be easy to slump back in your ratty bathrobe and think: my life sucks.
The record-breaking snow storm that hit the Chicago area last week served as a telling test case for this phenomenon. Unexpectedly freed from work and school for a day, families flocked outside to shovel driveways and build forts – and then we raced to document our activities on Facebook. By dinnertime, I was feeling confident that my family had won the unofficial contest for Best Snowman. Then, a few days later, a Facebook friend posted a picture of a snowman that rose higher than the first floor of his house. Ouch.
So yes, social media can turn life into a competition. But not always. Other things – far sadder things than snowmen – do turn up on my Facebook feed. Prayer requests from ailing relatives, say, or calls to action from friends involved in social justice. As people have become more comfortable with the social network, they seem more willing to use it in different ways.
Twitter in particular seems to be more resistant to the happy happy joy joy mentality. Maybe it’s just the people I follow, but I would say ranting is about as common on Twitter as bragging. Yes, people will show off there too, but more often than not they’ll be instantaneously hit with tweets calling them out for doing so.
Social media may have given all of this a new outlet, but putting our best faces forward is an old habit. (After all, how many family photo albums include images of childhood hissy fits and grandparents’ funerals?) What’s more, the underlying issue is addressed, as most are, as far back as the Ten Commandments. We’re talking about coveting here, one of the most insidious of sins. It’s buried deep within, seemingly instinctual and terribly difficult to root out. Coveting is grounded, really, in our innate understanding that this world is broken and that something crucial is missing from our lives. When it appears as if someone else has filled that hole, it hurts, even if we understand at the end of the day that this emptiness can only truly be filled by faith in Christ.
I suppose we could avoid social media to stop ourselves from becoming too envious. Or we could back off on the Facebook bragging and weed out those too happy, too joyful friends. At the very least, we should probably browse Facebook, Twitter and the like with the same guardedness we use when, say, flipping through an upscale clothing catalog or driving past a Mercedes-Benz dealership. We can’t always get what we want because – at least in this damaged world - we’ll always want.
Image courtesy of iStockphoto.