What a "Facebook Smile" Reveals About Future Happiness: The Expression of Positive Affect in Facebook Photographs Predicts Long-Term Well-Being

Seder, James Patrick, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
Oishi, Shigehiro, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia

Does smile intensity in people's Facebook photos predict long-term well-being? In order to answer this question, we coded the extent to which college students were smiling in photographs they posted to their Facebook accounts during their first semester at college. We used these behavioral data to predict long-term self-reported life satisfaction and relationship satisfaction. In Study 1 and Study 2, we showed that smile intensity coded from a single Facebook profile photograph retrieved during participants' first semester at college was a predictor of well-being 3.5 years later-as the participants were about to graduate from college. These results held even when we controlled for the influence of personality (e.g., Big Five), and for life satisfaction reported during the first semester. In Study 3, we explore the utility of using multiple photographs in order to predict longterm life satisfaction. 3 What A "Facebook Smile" Reveals About Future Happiness: The Expression of Positive Affect in Facebook Photographs Predicts Long-Term Well-Being In a recent large-scale study involving nearly two thousand adults, Davidson, Mostofsky, and Whang (2010) showed that display of positive affect on the part of patients during (relatively short) patent-nurse interviews predicted decreased incidence of coronary heart disease ten years later. The possibility that "momentary" displays of positive affect can predict future well-being has long been an intriguing-and largely under-explored-area of psychological research. In the most well-known example of this type of research, Harker and Keltner (2001) coded the extent to which a cohort of women were smiling in their college graduation yearbook photos. The women had graduated from the all-female Mills College (in Califomia) and were participants in a 30-year longitudinal study sponsored by the college. As part of the study, all of the women completed follow-up surveys once per decade; each of these surveys included questions about the participants' well-being. Thus, in addition to the codings for the expressions of positive affect (i.e., the yearbook photos), Harker and Keltner had access to self-report data from multiple time points beyond graduation from college, with the final survey being completed when participants were 52 years old. Results showed that the intensity with which the women were smiling in their yearbook photos predicted self-reported life satisfaction at each of the four future time points. Smile intensity was also correlated with participants' likelihood of marrying in their 20s and with their marital satisfaction at age 52 (the latter question was only 4 included in the final survey). Thus, the "momentary" expression of positive affect captured in a single (formal) photograph that was taken and made public when participants were just 21 years old conveyed surprisingly rich information about the participants' short-term and long-term well-being and other important life outcomes. Harker and Keltner (2001) did not test for mediation. They did, however, speculate that at least two types of processes might be likely to mediate the relationship between smile intensity and their participants' long-term well-being. First, the affective display captured in the photographs might have been a marker of personality type. Extraversion, for example, is typically associated with subjective well-being (e.g., Diener, Oishi, & Lucas, 2003) and relationship satisfaction (e.g., Scollon & Diener, 2006), and may be characterized by display of positive affect (i.e., smiling). Thus, extraversion could be one plausible candidate. Second, Harker and Keltner noted that intensity of affective display in the photos may have also been an indication of the degree to which participants were likely to display positive emotion in their "real life" interactions-and the degree to which interaction partners might be likely to perceive this display and respond in kind. Display of positive affect in relationships has, for example, been shown to be associated with relationship quality (e.g., Gottman, Levenson, & Woodin, 2001) and relationship satisfaction. Thus, there is ample past research to suggest that the relationship between smile intensity and long-term well-being could have been at least partially mediated by relationship satisfaction.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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