Finding happiness online
We hear frequently that spending time on social media is bad for our mental health. But this doesn’t tell the whole story – so are there happy parts of the internet? And what is happiness anyway?
The concept of happiness is a complicated one – it varies across cultures and time. Professor Peter Stearns, of George Mason University, wrote a great article on the history of happiness. It is generally understood to be a state of contentment and wellbeing – but can we study something so elusive? Dan Gilbert, author of ‘Stumbling on Happiness’ gave a TED talk on the science of happiness.
The Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagan is dedicated solely to the study of happiness. They release an annual report each year, which ranks happiness across nations – this is the happiness report from 2020. Finland pipped Denmark to get the number one spot this year, with Afghanistan coming last. We might have been able to guess this – after all Finland is wealthier than Afghanistan. However people in Costa Rica (77th in terms of GDP according to estimates from the IMF) are noted as being happier than those in the USA (1st for GDP). So wealth doesn’t equate to happiness – in fact this paper which surveyed 83 people living in a slum in Calcutta showed they were surprisingly satisfied with their lives.
The nation of Bhutan decided that instead of measuring their country’s success by GDP (or gross domestic product) they would instead measure GNH (gross national happiness). Every five years The Centre for Bhutan & GNH Studies (CBS) surveys the population to produce a report on happiness – you can view the report from 2015 here. Some have linked their focus on maintaining happiness over the economy to their success in managing the COVID-19 pandemic.
How happy is the internet?
So, let’s go beyond the national trends and look at the digital world. Looking at the world’s biggest social media site, Facebook, an in-depth study of over 5000 participants found that using Facebook reduced your sense of wellbeing and decreased your mental health. A 2018 study in South Korea found that different platforms did in fact have different effects on relative happiness. They found that social comparison negatively effected relative happiness – in other words comparing ourselves to others makes us feel less happy. Different platforms engendered different types of comparison – while blogs, Instagram and LinkedIn made the participants feel relatively happier, Twitter had the reverse effect.
If we take a closer look at Twitter, a group of researchers have created the Hedonometer – a tool for measuring the average happiness of English-speakers across Twitter (they are currently working on other language areas). It’s sadly not surprising that 2020 is the saddest year on record on Twitter, since they began recording in 2009.
So where can we find happiness online?
A recent study by the University of Oxford found that playing Animal Crossing and Plants vs Zombies increased sense of wellbeing among participants. Earlier this year I wrote an article about how the pleasure of wish-fulfillment in Animal Crossing, and the game has been incredibly popular throughout the pandemic so I’m not surprised to hear that it provides a happy boost.
This year in particular we’ve been cut off from the natural world. One way the internet can really improve your mood is by looking at nature vicariously – a study on incarcerated Americans found that watching videos of nature made them calmer, more empathetic and less violent. Perhaps this is why the cottagecore trend has become so popular this year – an online subculture that focuses on an idealised country life. I’ve written before about why we might be turning to cottagecore this year – and spoken to journalist Cheyne Anderson about the appeal of the pastoral in times of turbulence.
While use of some social media platforms has a provable negative effect on your mental health, social interaction and strong support systems have been shown to increase happiness. So facetime with your nan, set up a Zoom party or an online quiz – supportive social impacts can improve your wellbeing.
A large study in the Nederlands found that people who exercised regularly were happier than those who did not – this effect even bore out when identical twins were compared. While it’s counterintuitive, it seems that in the UK we’ve actually seen an increase in exercise since lockdowns began last April, according to a survey by the Nuffield Trust. While walking and jogging were the most popular activities, HIIT and yoga both made the list. The plethora of quality online classes means we can do a little something every day to keep ourselves healthy and happy.
Cinema therapy is a real treatment employed by therapists – but what to choose? In a world on online streaming sites we have every genre on offer. In a study on happiness and productivity, researchers examined the effects of watching comedy on participants and found it provided a lift in happiness. Other studies have shown engaging with sad media can increase happiness. Personally, I’m rewatching all the Studio Ghibli films.
Finding happiness in the every day
In their beautiful study, ‘Happiness from Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences’, authors Amit Bhattacharjee and Cassie Mogilner, look at the happiness gleaned from everyday activities (cosy movie nights, a favourite meal) and extraordinary experiences (a life changing travel experience or getting married for example). They found that ordinary experiences may have previously been overlooked in studying what makes a happy life, and that we generally look for happiness in ordinary experiences as we grow older:
“Notably, defining one’s self through experiences becomes no less important with age; rather, the experiences that best define the self shift from the extraordinary to the ordinary over one’s life span.”
This year many of us have foregone extraordinary experiences, so its important to remember the vital importance of every day happiness. I’ve just finished listening to the audio book of ‘The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well‘ by Meik Wiking – a researcher at the Happiness Research Institute. In it he argues that the practice of hygge is the pursuit of everyday happiness. It can be found through cosy lighting, movie nights with friends, hot cocoa and candles (lots and lots of candles). So as we head into winter, maybe consider logging out of Facebook and trying some of these ideas for building up your happiness.
Online Social Networking and Mental Health, Pantic, 2014
Making the Best of a Bad Situation: Satisfaction in the Slums of Calcutta, Biswas-Diener and Diener, 2001
Video game play is positively correlated with well-being, Johannes, Vuorre and Przybylski, 2020
How does online social networking enhance life satisfaction?, Jung, Ozkaya and La Rose, 2014
Impacts of nature imagery on people in severely nature-deprived environments, Nadkarni et al, 2017
The association between exercise participation and well-being: A co-twin study, Stubbe et al, 2007
Happiness from Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences, Bhattacharjee and Mogilner, 2014
The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well, Wiking, 2016
(Photo by Isaac Quesada)
(Photo by Isaac Quesada)
(Photo by Gustav Gullstrand)
(Photo by Chewy)