I haven’t changed my profile picture on Facebook since joining in 2008. I’ve hardly updated my status either, other than to promote my writing or my friends’.
I’ve just never really felt the itch to post pictures of my lunch or my pets or whatever other ordinariness I happened upon as I went about my boring day.
Those times I do succumb to the Facebook time suck, though, scrolling through my news feed leaves me feeling sad. I look on wondering why I'm not regularly eating in fancy restaurants, why I can't afford to take more vacations or why my husband and I don’t spend more time frolicking in fall leaves.
So, I wasn’t surprised when I read a study out of the University of Missouri that said voyeuristic use of Facebook contributes to unhappiness. Of course it does.
I was amazed, though, to learn the opposite to also be true. Apparently, says the same study, engaging in Facebook makes people happier.
By hooking electrodes up to people’s faces in a process called electrofacialmyography, researchers noted a “significant uptick in happiness” when participants engaged in Facebooking.
Having suffered from depression and anxiety my whole life, I wondered if a non-drug antidote to my mental health issues was really just a few clicks away. I decided to examine this proposition with my own study, sample size: one. I would post shit on Facebook for a week and see if it made me any happier.
By sharing with people a glimpse of my life, would I feel an uptick in my mood? Would I feel more connected? I thought it worth investigating.
I started small, easing my way into online living with BuzzFeed quizzes, discovering that if I were a song on Taylor Swift’s 1989 album, I would be Out of the Woods.
I had set out to do 20 or so BuzzFeed quizzes but retired after the second, wherein I learned that if I was a movie girlfriend stereotype, I would be the “ugly one with a heart of gold.”
The ugly one!?
“Your glasses are kind of a drawback,” explained BuzzFeed, “but once your boyfriend got past that he realized you were a wonderful person.”
“Do you think my glasses are a drawback?” I asked my husband.
“Not at all,” he said, “I actually prefer you with your glasses.”
Ha! Take that, BuzzFeed!
I wasn’t feeling more connected yet. I needed to go bigger. I needed to post pictures of myself actually doing something. Something interesting, like a concert or a festival or one of those hyper-cool unadvertised, back-alley, secret-handshake, hipster, counter-culture kind of events everyone seems to be attending. Except, I didn’t know of any.
I got my retired dentist father to accompany me to the Art Gallery by luring him with the promise of brunch. I thought this would be a good opportunity anyway to post pictures of what I was eating, another common Facebook-ism.
I stopped my dad from tucking into his meal mid-fork so I could stage a photo. My plate got cold as I fiddled around with my phone trying to figure out how to post the picture to Facebook. This was probably something I should have looked into before starting this venture.
With the help of my 65-year-old father, and a few unintended selfies later, I slid and clicked and successfully posted a picture of my breakfast online right, smack at 11:00 am. On November 11.
“Remembering our brave men and women in uniform,” everyone else’s statuses said. “Waffles!” said mine.
Things didn’t improve from there. My Dad and I stood around in the cold so he could snap a pic of me in front of the art gallery without any passersby. It was the first frost of the season here in Toronto but I wore a skirt, desperately trying to shed “the ugly one” title earned just one day prior.
It took so long to take the picture that we had to first get coffees to warm up. And that coffee went with a pastry, which also had to be photographed, further delaying any art appreciation.
Once we finally made it into the actual gallery, I couldn’t relax. Walking through a beautiful exhibit featuring rare drawings by Michelangelo, I could hardly appreciate them, stressing about what pictures to take, how they should be captioned, and why anyone would care.
One social media study reports that the mere thought of sharing things on Facebook activates reward-processing centers. Dopamine starts flowing freely before we’ve actually shared anything online.
The idea of sharing, however, had the opposite effect on me. So lame did I feel posting pictures of my breakfast and forced artistic excursion that I wanted to block every single one of my friends before broadcasting anything.
But I quickly remembered the purpose of this experiment and pushed on. And then the strangest thing happened — people liked my photos. And they commented on them. And I was engaged in (quasi) conversations with people I haven’t seen in ages. One person said she was jealous of me. Another texted and asked me where I got my skirt.
“It made me think I need to go shopping,” she wrote.
While that was nice, it was also misleading. I bought one new skirt and one new sweater this season and I specifically wore them for that photo, hoping to look good. And that’s the thing, really, about sharing shit on Facebook: It felt dishonest.
Working from home, I spend most days in sweatpants looking unpresentable. Posting pictures of a film festival, of a book festival, of my dog and my cat, of my husband and me on a hike, of our empty sushi cartons, I didn’t get the “psychological rush” that Matthew Lieberman writes about in “Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect.” I felt disingenuous and concerned about other people’s feelings.
A Facebook friend of mine recently lost her beloved bulldog: did she really need to see pics of me cuddling my pup? I worried about her looking at them and missing her friend.
My husband and I are struggling to have a baby right now, and I take no pride in admitting that it hurts, sometimes, to see so many pictures of people’s beautiful children. It’s my fault, of course, for subjecting myself to Facebook. That is what Facebook is. That is what it’s for (I think).
Still, I should have known better than to Facebook binge on Halloween when every single parent is posting pics of their adorable little Batmen and Elsas (Elsi?)
As the week went on and I uploaded more and more photos about nothing, I felt uneasy portraying this false sense of myself to the world. As a writer, I try to cultivate emotional honesty and it felt inauthentic to post pics of myself smiling and composed when more often than not I am feeling all out of sorts.
I feel lost and unsure about so many things. To post a momentary slice of my life, one where my curls are in place just so, felt two-faced. They’re usually much frizzier. I am usually here, at home, behind a computer, struggling. I am not often at galleries or film festivals or book fairs.
Was it really the act of sharing on Facebook that made people happier or was it, in fact, the act of doing the things portrayed in those pictures? If nothing else, this week served to get me out of the house.
My father and I wouldn’t have enjoyed a lovely day at the art gallery together otherwise. Uploading the photos didn’t enhance the experience for me, though it did force me to capture it and perhaps, in years’ time, I will be thankful for that.
Commenting on other people’s posts — liking their links or their photos ‚ I didn’t feel more bonded or more connected. And I didn’t feel an uptick in my social capital (which apparently is a thing).
All I can really say is that having people like or comment on my posts felt nice. But you knew that already.
I was disappointed that my Facebook experiment didn’t quite deliver the engagement high the research suggested it would. Still, I wanted to share my attempt with my 12-year-old niece, Emma, in my everlasting effort to be “cool Aunty Wendy.” Emma has only ever known life with the Internet and sharing photos online is, to her, simply part of being alive.
“Look at me posting stuff on Facebook,” I tell her proudly, scrolling through some of the pictures for photographic proof.
“Facebook?” she asks. “Lame. Everyone’s on Instagram.”