Charles de Montesquieu once said: “If we only wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, and that is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.” One problem in the Facebook era is that we mistakenly believe people are happy based on how they present themselves online. Does happiness (the real life kind) have anything to do with how happy we appear digitally? It’s not likely. In fact, I think the obsessive focus on trying to appear happy digitally is actually a blockade to happiness in real life. At the root of the problem is presentation anxiety (a cousin of status anxiety). First, let’s examine the features of Facebook that enable people to present the illusion that they’re happy.
There are a two very popular features people use on Facebook: status updates and photo albums. I suspect that most readers are already well aware of how these features work, but I’ll explain their general usage for clarification anyway. A status update is a place to share a thought or quick bit of information with your Facebook friends. A sub-feature of status updates, the “check-in”, allows individuals to make a note on their profile whenever they visit an establishment or locale. For the rest of this essay I’ll simply use the broader term “status updates” to encompass all things related to status updates and photos.
“Conspicuous Status Updates”
Status updates have become, amongst other things, the new way to “name drop”. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, name dropping is the practice of mentioning people and places that are thought to signal a sign of prestige and importance. When status updates are used to name drop I call them “conspicuous status updates”. Conspicuous status updates are the latest mutation of “conspicuous consumption” which was a term coined by sociologist and economist, Thorstein Veblen in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class. Conspicuous consumption refers to consumption habits used to display income and wealth, i.e., status, rather than for any intrinsic utilitarian need.
Unfortunately, part of the human condition is to base our happiness on relative, rather than absolute terms. Happiness thus becomes an arms race of sorts. While we are busy trying to craft our happy avatars we miss out on the beauties of the real world around us. This is exactly how an intensive focus on appearing happy digitally paradoxically detracts from real life happiness.
Furthermore, no matter what your opinion of conspicuous status updates is, they contain an inherent flaw as a signaling mechanism: we don’t know if the signal is reliable. In other words, when an individual drops a conspicuous status update, we don’t know if they can really afford the goods or services mentioned in the update. What if it’s all smoke and mirrors? We also don’t know if the individuals behavior that is displayed in the update is a wise decision or not.
I believe there is another inherent problem with conspicuous status updates: there is a very low cost in creating conspicuous status updates. The less costly the signal is, the less reliable it is likely to be. A graduate degree, by contrast, is an intelligence signaling mechanism that has a high cost. Although this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an entirely accurate signal either. Individuals who pursue advanced degrees are, however, willing to pay a relatively high cost to demonstrate that they are serious about their education and in being perceived as intelligent. An individual could fake their way through a graduate program, but this would be very costly in many ways. In evolutionary terms, these types of “fitness indicators” that are very costly are generally widely interpreted as more reliable status indicators.
What is the Price of Looking Happy?
When there is a low cost to appearing happy through conspicuous status updates many people will try to appear happier than they really are through a status update war. This is analogous to spending on credit to appear more financially successfully. It’s bad for you and it’s bad for society. I find it strange that people sacrifice happiness in real life in order to keep up with a never ending series of status updates. Let’s call it keeping up with the Zuckerberg’s.
Whatever happened to philosophy? Instead we’ve replaced it with the notion that we all should look happy on sites like Facebook when we know deep down that just isn’t true. Most philosophers have never denied the reality that status hierarchies exist and have realized that putting relative conditions on our happiness sets us up for a lifetime of unhappiness. Part of philosophy is about learning to accept that our self worth and identity are distinctly different from how others perceive us in the status hierarchy. The notion of digital happiness often muddles up our perception of how happy others are, which can make us feel even crummier about our own lives. As I’ve alluded to, this is silly because I think we grossly overestimate how happy people really are.
I realize that it would be very sophomoric of me to make sweeping generalizations about all Facebook users. I hypothesize, however, that happiness in real life is inversely related to how happy an individual tries to appear on Facebook. The harder they try, the more unhappy they really are. I call this the Facebook Happiness Hypothesis.