Using social media can give you the creeping sensation that maybe your friends, particularly the ones with hundreds of followers and retweets galore, are happier than you are. You can comfort yourself with the assurance that you’re just acting crazy, or you can face the cold hard truth of academic research: The “happiness paradox” — that your popular friends really are happier than you are — is a very real thing.
Researchers from Indiana University, New York University, and Wageningen University made this discovery while studying the social anxiety-inducing friendship paradox — the idea that a given person is, on average, less popular than his friends. That’s true too, but average is the key word here. Most people have a smaller number of friends on sites like Twitter and Facebook but probably follow or are friends with a handful of people who have a huge number of people watching their every social media post. The Kim Kardashians of your life are going to skew your average and stack the numbers so you get social media envy. (It’s like the old saw about a group of people hanging out with Bill Gates and realizing that, on average, they’re all billionaires.)
But the friendship paradox has never been proven to be directly related to happiness — until now. To test it out, the researchers studied the online behavior of 39,100 Twitter users. They assessed the users’ “subjective well-being” — that is, happiness — by applying an algorithm that detects mood and sentiment in their most recent 3,000 tweets and then quantifying these tweets against their popularity (their number of in-network friends).
Turns out the more popular tweeters really did seem happier than the less popular ones. The researchers believe this finding is further proof that the perceived unhappiness of social media users can be directly connected to the perceived happiness of one’s friends. Jealousy is a bummer, man.
“If popular individuals tend to be happier, their elevated happiness will become more prevalent as well,” the researchers write. “If individuals equate popularity with prestige and compare their own popularity to that of their friends, this may lead to increased levels of dissatisfaction.”
The only advice the researchers give for not succumbing to the inevitable dissatisfaction of your life is to curb social media use. It’s salty tweets and dog pictures or a lifetime of happiness. We think we know which one you’ll choose.