Book review: ‘The Happiness Effect’ by Donna Freitas

How social media channels like Facebook have become “the CNN of envy”

There was a note pinned on my flatmate’s door in our student apartment at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA: ‘Gone to a party. Having a great time.’ I remember that note because of its confident promise of enjoyment. How could my flatmate have known they were going to have a ‘good time’ at the party before they had even arrived?

The pressure on young people to portray themselves as in a constant state of ecstasy is the central argument of ‘The Happiness Effect: How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost’ by Donna Freitas (Oxford University Press, £20, ISBN 9780190239855). How many ‘likes’ they get on a social media networks defines how they feel about themselves, and how they think others feel about them. This creates an enormous pressure to be happy, or to publicly declare yourself as happy on these platforms.

Social media is expressly designed for “showing off, for bragging and boasting of all that one is, has, and does… Facebook is the CNN of envy, a kind of 24/7 news cycle of who’s cool, who’s not, who’s up, and who’s down.” It provides a “limitless audience of constant evaluators.” It isn’t only a place to feel included, but a place that lets you know when you’ve been left out of things. We feel rejection if not enough people retweet or ‘share’ us. “The inability to obtain quantifiable public approval is a source of shame,” says Freitas.

But there’s a problem with this argument. This pressure on young people isn’t new. My flatmate’s note was written in 1981 – over 20 years before the arrival of Facebook in 2004, almost 30 years before the launch of Instagram in 2010 – among the very social media platforms Freitas accuses of creating the need for young people to be permanently content.

‘The Happiness Effect’ is based on interviews with over 200 American college students and surveys with a further 800. The interviews are presented with a detailed, and somewhat judgmental, description of each student: “Even in sweats, Emily is stunning. Her eyes are tired, and she might be nursing a hangover, but Emma is effortlessly beautiful.” Many student interviewees describe their regular ‘Facebook cleanups’ – going back over posts and deleting any that hint at negative emotions or have zero ‘likes’.

My own experience of social media suggests the opposite. I am always shocked how young people, including my own teenagers, share their miseries. When one friend’s husband walked out on her, within a day it was on Facebook. She wasn’t pretending to be happy – quite the opposite. She was clearly angry and upset. Facebook was the place she felt able to vent that grief.

Perhaps it’s the interviewees’ setting of the American college campus, with its exclusive sororities and fraternities, that contributes to young people feeling pressurised to be endlessly boastful and jolly. My flatmate’s note was pinned up in one such place.

Social media may have many drawbacks for young people. But Freitas fails to convince that a constant need to be smiling is one of them.

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