There are plenty of reasons why we use social networks: to catch up with friends, to share photos, to link to thought-provoking articles or funniest cat videos and to brag about our bikini bodies/beach holidays/beautiful children –sometimes all in the same post.
Few of us, I’d wager, log on because we want to feel worse. And yet a number of studies link our use of Facebook, Twitter and other websites to a lowering of mood. Recent research by the University of Michigan suggested that the more people checked Facebook, the worse they felt about their own lives. Comparing one’s own life to the magical worlds in which others claim to live can have an adverse reaction on users’ mental health.
Despite that we all know lives can appear so much more livelier on Facebook and that the idyllic beach break might have been marred by a building site next door (carefully edited out of shot in the sun-drenched selfies), it’s easy to get sucked into feeling jealous. What to make, then, of a growing social network called Happier, which asks users to be always positive in the hope that, in doing so, such happiness will rub off on everybody else? Won’t this exacerbate our Fomo (fear of missing out) and envy, as we see others having a beatific time?
“In our community, users smile at each other’s moments – a much kinder way than a ‘like’ – and try to really support and encourage each other,” says Happier’s co-founder Nataly Kogan, who also likes to be known as the chief happiness officer. Happier feels like a mix between Twitter and Facebook. You can use the “discover” option to see what users are writing and you can follow any of the network’s posters without seeking permission from them. You can write your own moments by clicking the site’s “share happy” button and there are no restrictions on the number of characters, so you can gush away, although the vast majority of people don’t. The overwhelming feeling is that people are having a great time. Just like in those smug posts on Facebook that are, apparently, making us so glum.
“Facebook and Twitter are great companies and I use both of their products,” Kogan says. “But I think there is a lot of negativity and snark on both, and one of the things we are working really hard to create on Happier is a positive, supportive community where people encourage each other, even when their days aren’t great.”
So we get a nice glimpse into the lives of people who, in the most part, we’ve never met. Alexandra received a nice bunch of flowers from her best friend, which was nice; La Prokosch was invited to a surprise Thanksgiving meal (and posted a frame-filling picture) and thanked her aunt; and Michelle Mazur “landed safely after a lovely weekend”, which was a great relief to all, or at least the three people who lent a smile to the moment and the one person who left a comment.
More than 1.5 million “moments” have been shared to date and there have been 2.5 million Facebook-like-equivalent smiles since the social network launched in February. Kogan won’t disclose Happier’s user numbers but she was reported to have said in July there were more than 100,000. “We are a small and fast-growing company,” she says.
Kogan says there are two core scientific principles underpinning Happier.com. She draws on a Harvard study that says expressing gratitude and writing it down makes people healthier, more energetic, less stressed and less anxious. It helps people to sleep better, too. She also quotes Dr Nicholas Christakis and Professor James Fowler, researchers at Harvard and the University of San Diego, who found that each additional happy friend increases a person’s probability of being happy by about 9 per cent.
However, the experts at the University of Michigan aren’t necessarily convinced. “Although we do not yet have definitive evidence for our hypothesis, our working model is that it is the passive use of Facebook – that is reading posts – that leads to increased sadness,” John Jonides, Michigan’s professor of psychology and neuroscience, says. “We suspect that people read about the good lives, or at least the lies about the good lives, that others are leading, and by social comparison they don’t perceive themselves to be as well off.
Based on this working model, I would predict that Happier might lead to the same state of affairs, but it is early days in this research to be confident about this prediction.”
It’s certainly easy to scoff at the idea of a website that is so relentlessly upbeat, not least one set up by a venture capitalist who has worked at Microsoft and where.com, a company acquired by PayPal, as Kogan did before she became chief happiness officer. But her life has not always been quite so rosy. Brought up in a tiny flat in the Soviet Union, she said her Jewish family was considered to be second-class citizens. “My parents did a pretty awesome job at shielding me from most of the persecution – my saddest moment was not being able to travel outside the country with my dance group because I was a Jew – but they faced a lot of it,” she says. She recalls queuing for hours for groceries and her grandmother standing in line for a day to buy her boots for winter. “Life wasn’t easy, but thanks to my parents I still had a pretty good childhood, although [I was] always aware of this double life we were living as Jews,” she says.
Her family left the Soviet Union and headed for a refugee camp in Vienna in May 1989. They later moved to Italy before applying for permission to enter the United States as refugees in August of that year. In the past she has told interviewers: “I wanted to chase the American dream and I thought you got there by achieving lots of things and making lots of money… I became a venture capitalist, drove some fancy cars. And I realized that none of that was making me happy.”
The users of her site have certainly embraced her definition of what does make people happy – sharing, encouraging, appreciating the mundane. During the time I spent on Happier, I encountered no negativity and Kogan tells me that the site is only policed for spam and abuse. That means the overwhelming majority of people are joining in the spirit of things and that, by questioning it, we perhaps need to spend more time on it. Then again, what if moaning makes people happy (after all, a survey by OnePoll.com in 2008 showed moaning, drinking and taking pleasure in the misfortune of others to be quintessentially British)?
“I doubt moaning makes a lot of people happier,” she says, laughing. “But the great thing about Happier is that if you’re sharing a genuine moment that made you happier, it doesn’t really matter what it is. One of the things we truly believe at Happier is that you don’t need to be happy to be happier. Our community encourages people to try and find something to smile about anyway.”
Introducing a softer, cuddlier side of the web...
By Archie Bland
If Happier becomes a success, it will be powerful evidence that the web, best known for pornography, snarkiness and government spying, also has an almost unbelievably cuddly side. And it is not coming into a vacuum. Indeed, what you might call the “sentimental internet” has become the most significant trend in life online – and one that stands to be extraordinarily lucrative.
You may, for example, have noticed a previously unfamiliar website popping up in your Facebook feed more and more often over the last year or so: Upworthy. More recently, an upstart imitator called Viral Nova has started to mine the same territory. These sites are basically Buzzfeed for nice people and they have made a huge impression. Within six months of its foundation, Upworthy was getting 8.7 million unique visitors a month, making it the fastest-growing media site of all time. Viral Nova is catching up fast.
The formula is a straightforward one. A curator finds a moving video on the internet – according to Upworthy, anything posted must be “stuff that matters” with “no empty calories” – and puts it up for inclusion. Both sites are mere aggregators, but they pride themselves on doing one thing very well: they package things so that people want to click on them and want to share them with their friends. Thus, the average Upworthy post has had 25 headlines written before one is selected as the most irresistible linkbait. These seductive phrases, in which every word is capitalised, are an ever more familiar feature of the fabric of the internet. So it is that a video initially titled “My Last Days: Meet Zach Sobiech”, featuring an extraordinarily likeable teenage musician with terminal cancer, was spotted by Upworthy and repackaged, with huge success, as follows: “This Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular.” The resulting single topped the iTunes chart.
There is a deep weight of data behind all this (the presence of soppy neologisms like Wondtacular, for example, have been shown to consistently draw people’s attention) – and if the result is more attention to good causes, which it often is, perhaps it is hard to complain. At the same time, though, there may be something a little troubling about it all.
All parts of the media have always drawn on our appetite for human connection, but when you click through a few Viral Nova links that eye-pricking moment sparked by a good love story or sweet puppy becomes almost abstract, like the way a drug can give you a perfect facsimile of joy. “After A Week In The Hospital, This Man Broke Down When He Saw What His Wife Did. Amazing.” “What These Twins Did Days After Being Born Is Simply Beautiful. I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It.” “She Wrote A Letter To God After Her Dog Died. The Reply She Got Will Make You Cry.” Click; emote; click again; emote again; the first one is already forgotten. (While Upworthy has somewhat higher standards, incidentally, there is no evidence that anyone on Viral Nova is doing anything to check that the stories it promotes are actually true.)
The danger is that such emotional quorn becomes not an inspiration to action, or compassion, but a substitute for it. Upworthy disputes this sort of assessment vigorously, of course, and its founder Eli Pariser, formerly of MoveOn.org, has explicitly put social change at the heart of the site’s mission. It is to be hoped he is right. But when asked about how that would work by the US media site Nieman Journalism Lab, the community manager Kaye Toal was remarkably circumspect. “It’s hard to measure,” she said. “It’s not like we can go to each of our Facebook fans and ask: ‘What have you done today?’”