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January 14, 2014

Study: Your friends really are happier, more popular than you

We like to blame Facebook and Instagram for making it seem as though all of our friends lead cooler, more sociable, more interesting lives. But it turns out social networks are not at fault: Your friends really are richer, happier and more popular than you, according to a depressing new study from researchers in Finland and France.

This little mobius strip of a phenomenon is called the "generalized friendship paradox," and at first glance it makes no sense. Everyone's friends can't be richer and more popular — that would just escalate until everyone's a socialite billionaire.

The whole thing turns on averages, though. Most people have small numbers of friends and, apparently, moderate levels of wealth and happiness. A few people have buckets of friends and money and are (as a result?) wildly happy. When you take the two groups together, the really obnoxiously lucky people skew the numbers for the rest of us. Here's how MIT's Technology Review explains the math:

"The paradox arises because numbers of friends people have are distributed in a way that follows a power law rather than an ordinary linear relationship. So most people have a few friends while a small number of people have lots of friends.

"It's this second small group that causes the paradox. People with lots of friends are more likely to number among your friends in the first place. And when they do, they significantly raise the average number of friends that your friends have. That's the reason that, on average, your friends have more friends than you do."

And this rule doesn't just apply to friendship — other studies have shown that your Twitter followers have more followers than you, and your sexual partners have more partners than you've had. This latest study, by Young-Ho Eom at the University of Toulouse and Hang-Hyun Jo at Aalto University in Finland, centered on citations and coauthors in scientific journals. Essentially, the "generalized friendship paradox" applies to all interpersonal networks, regardless of whether they're set in real life or online.

So while it's tempting to blame social media for what the New York Times last month called "the agony of Instagram" — that peculiar mix of jealousy and insecurity that accompanies any glimpse into other people's glamorously Hudson-ed lives — the evidence suggests that Instagram actually has little to do with it. Whenever we interact with other people, we glimpse lives far more glamorous than our own.

That's not exactly a comforting thought, but it should assuage your anxiety next time you scroll through your Facebook feed.

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