Many people would say the day they got married or they day they had a child was the happiest of their lives (if they've reached these milestones). Sure, getting a flurry of messages on Facebook is nice, but it's hard to imagine this digital love could make someone feel anywhere near the level of happiness he or she feels on those special days. Facebook, however, wants us to believe the social networking site really can make us that happy.
In case you missed it, a headline circulating this week is suggesting that very possibility. Study: Facebook Can Elicit Feelings Tantamount To Weddings, Babies, wrote CBS. New Study Says Facebook Makes People Just as Happy as Weddings and Babies, read another. While Facebook is great for letting you know what your freshman year roommate's boyfriend is up to, could it really provide such immense happiness?
Being the social science cynic that I am, I had a tough time believing that Facebook could so deeply impact a person's psyche—so I decided to probe further. The study was conducted at Carnegie Mellon University, and it turns out the lead author was Moira Burke, who is—wait for it—a Research Scientist for Facebook!
Employment bias aside, let's dive into the actual research. Burke and her team surveyed 1,910 Facebook users from 91 countries after recruiting them via Facebook ads. The ads were targeted at people who were really active on Facebook, and most participants were about 15 years older than the average Facebooker; the mean age was 46.3. The point of the whole thing was to see how their various Facebook interactions—likes, pokes, wall posts, personalized messages, et cetera—affected their psychological well-being.
Participants completed surveys about both their emotional reactions to Facebook and their overall psychological well-being over the course of three months. The participants also reported on major life events that occurred around this timeframe, such as a marriage, birth, death, or illness. The researchers also got permission to monitor their general Facebook activity, specifically between them and six close friends.
So what did they find? The researchers discovered that participants' well-being increased the most when they received composed, targeted communication from their specified six close friends. Other communication such as likes and pokes, or receiving communications from non-close friends (what the researchers call "weak ties"), didn't do anything for well-being.
Sounds great. And kind of obvious. I would much rather get a sweet message from my bae than a poke from some dude I knew in high school. So where did this whole "Facebook makes you as happy as marriage and babies" thing come from?
Well, the researchers also compared how personalized Facebook interactions affected their happiness relative to the life events they reported. Weirdly, however, the study itself makes no mention of how getting married or having a baby, specifically, stacks up to receiving Facebook messages, so I asked the lead author, Burke, to explain the alleged link.
Here's the example she gave me over email:
Surprisingly, one of the life events linked to the greatest increases in social support (one aspect of well-being) is when a friend or family member dies. You grieve, but friends also visit and offer condolences, reminding you of the supportive people in your life. Participants in our study who reported experiencing the death of a loved one in the past month felt increases in well-being of 0.02 points on our scale.
Why is she talking about grief? Well, that well-being boost, she says, is the same boost people felt when they received 60 or more personalized Facebook messages in one month.
Basically, when you get a shit load of personalized messages from your friends, some people might feel supported and happy the same way they do when something bad happens and people reach out to you. But what about marriage and babies?
According to Burke, that comparison came from the participants' self-reported life events. As she told me: "We could then see how much well-being changed among participants who experienced one of these major life events, and compare the size of the effect to that of receiving 60 Facebook comments."
Fair enough, but according to the data presented in the study, only 4% of participants reported a "pregnancy or welcoming a new family member" (which is vague and could also mean, like, a baby cousin). As for marriage, that data isn't even listed in the study—it was left out—but Burke told me it was relevant for 2.4% of participants (about 45 people).
Now, allegedly, the positive impact of having a baby or getting married matched the impact of receiving all these wonderful Facebook messages, right? That’s what the press release for the study said, and what Burke told me. But plain and simple, the data is just not significant enough to draw (and broadcast) this conclusion. So few people who participated recently got married, the data is extremely limited. Also, asking someone about their psychological well-being within one month of having a baby is a mixed bag. I’m pretty sure if, in two years, you asked them if Facebook or their child brings them more joy, their response would change (I hope).
The bottom line? This study needs to be taken for what it is. It found that meaningful social interactions can bring positives into people's lives. Which is great—look at communities on Instagram, Facebook, Twitch, and Reddit and you'll see proof of that.
But to say that using Facebook makes you as happy as tying the knot or having a baby is ridiculous and sounds like a giant load of propaganda to me. Sure, it makes for a great headline—but it simply isn't true.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.