Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Does Social Media Make Us Happier, Healthier?

Ever since I read Blink, I’ve been a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell. After wanting to read Outliers for a long time, I finally got my hands on it last week. The book begins with an interesting reference to a town called Roseto in Pennsylvania, U.S. The residents of this town, all migrants from the village of Roseto Valfortore in Italy, immigrated to Pennsylvania between 1882 to 1894, working in the local slate quarries.

In the 1950s, a physician named Stewart Wolf heard something interesting about the Rosetans; a local doctor mentioned to him that in the two decades of his practice, he had rarely found any patients from Roseto under the age of 65 with heart disease. At that time, heart disease was one of the leading causes of death in men under the age of 65 in the U.S., so Dr. Wolf found this fascinating.

Digging deeper, he uncovered some strange statistics. The town of Roseto had no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction and very little crime. Even though their eating habits were unhealthy and many of them were even obese, the death rate from heart disease among men over 65 was three times lower than the neighboring villages and half the average rate prevalent in the country.

After much research, Dr. Wolf found the answer: it was the sense of community that prevailed in this little village. The tight-knit community of Rosetans would often visit each other or just stop to chat with one another on the streets. Three generations of family often lived in the same home and 22 civic organizations existed in this town with a population of less than 2,000 people. The answer to their healthy and happy lifestyle lay not in genes, eating habits, geographic location or even exercise but in the community they had built for themselves in the mid-1900s.

But what does this have to do with social media? As I was reading this, I wondered if social media, could, in any way, make us healthier or at least happier? (The assumption being that we indulge in moderation.) This is a complex research question and I agree, the sense of community the Rosetans created through face-to-face communication, cannot be compared to engaging virtually on social networks.

But some similarities do exist. For one, doesn’t social media lead us to, well, just be more social? Don’t social networks spark more conversation between us? Don’t we stop by to have brief (140-word) conversations with our community of followers on Twitter? Without limiting our interaction to geographic location, social networks can be a great way (especially for immigrant communities) to keep in touch with family and friends, making them, perhaps, feel less isolated.

As I was pondering this question, I came across Jim Stolze’s Virtual Happiness Project which studies the relationship between the social aspects of the Web and happiness. According to his experiments, sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube “give people a sense of belonging and community, which is a fundamental piece of our well-being.”

Of course, there are studies that suggest otherwise. There have been many studies about how social networks lead to addiction, even isolation, as virtual interactions replace “real” ones and how we are becoming increasingly dependent on the Web (a subject I will tackle in another blog post.) Yet, I don’t think it would be illogical to assume that the sense of community we build from engaging in social networks probably does contribute, even if in a small way, to our well-being. After all, don’t we all feel happy when our community of friends on Facebook wishes us on our birthday or when we get in touch with a long-lost school friend we were once close to?

I would love to hear about your own experiences. Do you think social media or specifically, social networks, have contributed to making you a happier person? Do you know of any other studies that have measured this correlation?

11 comments:

  1. While on the subject of health and happiness, as a follow-up to my post, here’s a little tidbit of information: Facebook has a 'Gross National Happiness Index' that measures the positive and negative emotions expressed on status messages. With over 500 million users, Facebook has created an application (apps.facebook .com/gnh_index) that can be sorted by country. Go ahead, see how happy your country is (Overall, we seem to be happier on holidays, which speaks a lot!)

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  2. Good start to the blog Farida. I like the way you started with Outliers. Social networks or media (still not clear about these terms - though you tried explaining to me) are a great invention of this decade. It certainly brings a lot of happiness but it becomes an addiction at times and that could be very dangerous. The trick is to not let it master you or it can engulf you.

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  3. Hey Fa, Nice one, social media cannot match the belongingness and closeness of having your friends relatives, peers around you but its better then no contact at all :)!

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  4. @Amith, thanks for reading and for your comment. I guess like all things, social networking should be indulged in moderation. It can get quite distracting and disruptive...I would definitely try and allocate a specific amount of time for it daily so it does not take over my other priorities.
    @ Manashri, thanks for your feedback. For people like you and me, social networking has certainly made the transition easier from our home country with the easy access to our friends and family.

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  5. Hi Farida. Nice start. The question though that needs to be answered is : Are you more social when you are happy or are you happy when you are social?

    I think social media is a major enabler that gives one an opportunity to interact and socialize with a much larger audience and to the extent that one derives happiness from these interactions it also is a Happiness Booster.

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  6. @HS Thanks for visiting my blog and for the retweet! That's a great comment. 'Are we more social when we are happy or happy when we are social?' That sounds like a chicken-and-egg question. (Oh, but wait, they apparently cracked that recently, so that metaphor doesn't work anymore, does it?)Personally, I tend to be less social when I'm not so happy, so you definitely have a point there.

    Happiness is, of course, affected by many variables but I do believe social networks can be a happiness booster, as you put it. And going by the Roseto example, I definitely believe they can contribute to our overall well-being through the sense of community they create.

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  7. Yes social networks do provide an opportunity for us to interact with others and derive happiness from that. These networks also allow us to share and thereby multiply our happiness.

    If I were to go off on a tangent and get a little philosophical here then I'd also add that happiness is a term that we rarely understand completely. If we could really understand happiness and its causes life would be so much simpler :) Do check out Daniel Kahneman's talk @ TED where he talks about the challenges in measuring happiness.

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  8. @HS Yes, if it only were as simple as finding an equation for happiness! Scientists, psychologists and researchers have been trying to decipher that one for years. I will check out Daniel Kahneman's talk. Speaking of measuring happiness, the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) was first suggested by the King of Bhutan in 1972 who said GNH was a more important measure than GDP. And I believe since then they have devised a way to measure GNH (besides it now being measured on Facebook through status updates!) This was a good discussion. Thank you!

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  9. My pleasure....keep writing :)

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  10. This is very complex and debatable topic in my opinion. And your article have very well covered the areas and justified the facts. For me social networking is both happiness and not. I feel happy with the ease of getting in touch with friends but at the same time not being able to ignore the people I want. And yeah being miles away from family and friends scattered everywhere it does make me happy to read comments and their opinion. Makes me happy and close to them.

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  11. @chandani84 Thanks for your comment. Social Networking does become tricky at times, especially when you get friend requests from colleagues/other acquaintances you may not really want to include on a personal network such as Facebook. But luckily, Facebook now offers a feature that allows you to hide your wall, pictures and other updates from specific people. It's a great feature to use - allows you to block out certain people without having to decline their friend request.

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