Friday, January 18, 2013

This Just In: Facebook Won’t Really Make You Happy

Previous research on the impact of online social networks suggest that they have a positive influence on happiness, but there’s a possible omitted variable bias involved. Larger online social networks might just be indicative of someone who would tend to have a larger network of friends anyway.

In this new NBER paper, a new Canadian dataset that covers both online and real world friendships offers a potential avenue to disentangle which one is actually more important (abstract):

Comparing the Happiness Effects of Real and On-line Friends
John F. Helliwell, Haifang Huang

A recent large Canadian survey permits us to compare real-time and on-line social networks as sources of subjective well-being. The sample of 5,000 is drawn randomly from an on-line pool of respondents, a group well placed to have and value on-line friendships. We find three key results. First, the number of real-life friends is positively correlated with subjective well-being (SWB) even after controlling for income, demographic variables and personality differences. Doubling the number of friends in real life has an equivalent effect on well-being as a 50% increase in income. Second, the size of online networks is largely uncorrelated with subjective well-being. Third, we find that real-life friends are much more important for people who are single, divorced, separated or widowed than they are for people who are married or living with a partner. Findings from large international surveys (the European Social Surveys 2002-2008) are used to confirm the importance of real-life social networks to SWB; they also indicate a significantly smaller value of social networks to married or partnered couples.

Basically what they found was that real life friendships matter the most – the effect of online social networks was negligible. Marriage or even dating act as effective potential substitutes, as does close family.

All those “likes”? Don’t count on’em.

Technical Notes

Helliwell, John F. & Haifang Huang, "Comparing the Happiness Effects of Real and On-line Friends", NBER Working Paper No. 18690, January 2013


  1. I am a regular visitor to your blog. I enjoy reading your articles which I find to be informative and balanced. Your writing is easy to understand for a non-economist like me.

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    1. Monyet King,

      Thanks for the support, I'll certainly keep trying.