What can we learn from the recent controversial Facebook experiment where researchers manipulated people’s newsfeed without their knowledge by increasing the number of either positive or negative posts?
Commentators have been quick to condemn the Facebook experiment for ethical reasons, but few have explored how we can best use the findings of the experiment for our own benefit.
In the pursuit of using science to improve our lives, Human Observatory sought out happiness expert and psychologist Dr Sonni Shine for her interpretation of the Facebook experiment and for her recommendations for happiness.
Dr Shine talked to us over Skype from her home in southern California.
Human Observatory: Thank you Dr Shine for your time. Can you give us a quick recap of the infamous Facebook experiment?
Dr Sonni Shine: Hi, good to talk. The controversial experiment involved nearly 700,000 Facebook users who unknown to them had their newsfeeds manipulated by the researchers to show either a reduced number of positive posts from their friends or a reduced number of negative posts.
The researchers then demonstrated that the people who were fed more depressing stories went on to post more depressing updates themselves. Also vice-versa, if Facebook gave you more happy posts, you went onto pass that happiness onto others as a result.
They call it ‘emotional contagion’ and the findings were that emotional contagion of both happiness and depression happens even without the users being aware.
HO: Was this a surprise?
Dr SS: No surprise to psychologists. This is consistent with other experiments over the last 20 years which show our emotions are strongly influenced by our environment.
It is not rocket science, but we now have proof, at a massive scale, that the emotional contagion effect happens on-line over social networks.
HO: Is this a big deal? So what?
Dr SS: This is where my personal research into happiness comes in. I have created a measure of happiness called the Happiness Quotient or HQ. On average a person has an HQ of 100. A very happy person could have an HQ of 120 or more. Depression kicks in with an HQ of 70 or below.
HO: Fascinating! This creates a whole new language. For example I am feeling I have an HQ of about 105 at the moment.
Dr SS: Exactly. We can then measure HQs of individuals, groups of friends or even countries. For example, I calculate California, with a population of just over 38 million, has a state HQ of 4.12 billion given that Californians are a little bit happier than average.
HO: It’s sort of like IQ but for happiness.
Dr SS: Actually, no. IQ is largely fixed in an individual for their lifetime; HQ on the other hand fluctuates over time. The objective for almost everybody is to become happier and increase their HQ.
I have shown that if you can get your HQ to 115 then there are a whole host of benefits in health, life satisfaction and, according to one of my recent analyses, even greater earning potential. At an HQ of 135 you achieve a state close to ecstasy.
HO: Wow! So what is the next step in your work?
Dr SS: My current research project is looking how we can increase HQ for individuals and for friendship groups. The Facebook experiment is very informative for my work. Facebook has shown by manipulating your Facebook newsfeed you can increase your happiness by several HQ units. For example you say you are 105 at the moment; you could easily move it to 110 through manipulating your social media feeds. That’s a significant difference. You would notice that!
HO: Yes, please. How do I do that?
Dr SS: It is surprisingly simple. You need to control what I call your “LifeStream”. I own the trademark by the way.
HO: What’s a “LifeStream(TM)”?
Dr SS: LifeStream(TM) is the total set of information that you receive day in, day out. From friends, newspapers, TV and of course now increasingly social media. As the Facebook experiment has shown, increase the happiness of your newsfeed, or more significantly your LifeStream(TM), and you become happier. As you get happier your communications become happier and so your family and friends become happier too.
HO: It is sort of like happiness inflation. Everyone gets happier!
Dr SS: Now you have got it! It is just like an economy but instead of monetary wealth, you have HQ wealth. With focused efforts from individuals, and extensive use of happiness consultants like myself, we can make the world a much happier place. Frankly, this area of study is far more important than economics.
HO: Fully agree. What is stopping us taking this forward?
Dr SS: The key issue is that without intervention most people’s LifeStream(TM) is unremittingly negative. Start with TV news and newspapers. Disasters, crime and misfortunate make news. If something really bad happens anywhere in the world it becomes a repetitive headline delivered direct to your lounge room. As Facebook has shown this decrements our HQs.
MH370, MH17, Gaza, Iraq are all major disasters but they directly affect a tiny portion of the world population. The billions of incremental acts of love and kindness don’t get communicated. The world’s collective HQ is under attack every day.
HO: I never looked at it like that? The Government should do something.
Dr SS: Or you could take personal responsibility for managing your own Lifestream(TM).
Here’s where I can help. I have a LifeStream(TM) App that you can buy for $4.99 which automatically filters negative news across all your social media and then injects the occasional random piece of good news. It’s just like you are participating in the Facebook experiment! I have shown that this alone delivers an extra 5 points of HQ.
HO: Anything else I can do?
Dr SS: Stop listening to and reading bad news. And actively seek out positive and fun stories. This is where the internet is making a difference as many of the new age “news” websites are actually more about cat memes and funny videos with just a veneer of actual hard news. While appearing trivial this is actually a positive for mankind as it increases the world’s HQ. You can add another 3 points of HQ from this.
Also, you can set up your own “LifeStream(TM) HQ Group” by signing up at my website for a small fee. As part of this group, you, your family and friends all agree to share positive happy news with each other. That’s another 7 points.
HO: Definitely I am in! It sounds very good value. How do I join?
Dr SS: It is all on my website lifestream.com.
HO: Dr Shine, thanks so much for your time. You should get a Nobel Peace prize for this incredible work!
Dr SS: Thank you. It has been a pleasure to talk. Make sure that you sign up now.