Social networking in some form or another has existed for as long as life on this planet, but we don't yet fully understand how the most modern incarnation affects our lives and our emotions in the long term. Facebook, Twitter and other similar sites give us a window into the activities of our friends en masse and instantly like never before, and a new study from the Happiness Research Institute suggests that may not necessarily be very good for us.
Just over a thousand Danish volunteers took part in the research: half carried on using Facebook as normal whereas half spent their time away from the world's biggest social network. After a week, 88 percent of those who'd given up Facebook said they felt "happy", compared with 81 percent of those who had still been checking into their News Feed stream on a regular basis.
And it's not hard to guess the reason why: envy at the lives other people are enjoying, even if Facebook represents an edited highlights reel of what's actually happening. "Instead of focusing on what we actually need, we have an unfortunate tendency to focus on what other people have," wrote the authors of the study.
Those who had abstained from Facebook also reported feeling more enthusiastic, less lonely, less worried and more decisive. They spent more time seeing family and friends face-to-face and said they found it easier to concentrate too – those are a serious set of benefits to taking some time away from the social network's apps and websites.
"Facebook is a constant bombardment of everyone else's great news, but many of us look out of the window and see grey skies and rain, especially in Denmark," Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, told The Guardian. "This makes the Facebook world, where everyone's showing their best side, seem even more distortedly bright by contrast, so we wanted to see what happened when users took a break."
"When I woke up, even before getting out of bed, I'd open Facebook on my phone just to check if something exciting or important had happened during the night," said 35 year-old Sophie Anne Dornoy, one of the volunteers. "I worried I'd end up on Facebook just out of habit. After a few days, I noticed my to do list was getting done faster than normal as I spent my time more productively. I also felt a sort of calmness from not being confronted by Facebook all the time."
Our brains are still adjusting to the effects of an always-on, smartphone-driven lifestyle – of which social media is just a part – and psychologists are only just beginning to understand the effects, especially in the long term (believe it or not, Facebook is a mere 11 years old).
Wiking says he would like to study the effects of a year-long Facebook boycott next… provided he can find enough willing volunteers.