Advertising makes us Unhappy: Social media and the Happiness Paradox


Advertising makes us Unhappy: Social media and the Happiness Paradox.

By Rui Yi


A study conducted by Andrew Oswald (and his team)from the University of Warwick comparing      life satisfaction and annual advertising spending data from 1980-2011 found there was an inverse relationship between two factors: a higher advertising expenditure diminished the well-being satisfaction levels of citizens. The conclusion of this study was, to put it bluntly: advertising makes us unhappy. 

Is our happiness shaped by what we hear and read?

In modern society, advertising has become an ever-present force in our everyday lives. From the traditional forms of advertising on billboards to the modern tactics of social media influencers, we are constantly bombarded with images designed (as stated by Oswald) “to generate dissatisfaction”. As a result, we find the desire to spend more on goods and services which ease ‘that feeling’. Now you may argue this interrelationship between advertising and discontentment only applies to materialistic people; as the age-old adage goes, money can’t buy you happiness!  Of course, it must be acknowledged that human happiness is primarily influenced by physiological needs - health, intimate and familial relationships, employment and so on, but media plays an undeniable role in shaping our emotions.


Research states “materialism is a natural part of being human where individuals can develop materialistic tendencies as an adaptive response to cope with situations that make them feel anxious and insecure” (Rindfleisch, et al., 1997). In other words; ‘Retail therapy’ can lead to short term happiness. However, Oswald explains that the implications of materialism can create a “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses status effect- when everybody buys the same thing the effect is nullified.” As a result, attempts to derive happiness from material goods can negatively impact our mindset. This is reflective of the inverse correlation between advertising and collective happiness as there is only so much status to go around.     

How does advertising in social media influence the happiness paradox?

Many studies have concluded most human beings thrive when they have strong, positive relationships with other human beings. When we become increasingly interconnected via social media and the internet we find ourselves bombarded with endorsements from social media influencers who promote products.  Although social interaction is a healthy and necessary part of human existence, a study of happiness on Twitter (39,110 users) conducted by Johan Bollen and colleagues from Indiana University through collecting data on users’ subjective wellbeing  found increased social media use resulted in a decline in one’s emotional state. Part of the explanation for this seemingly paradoxical trend is found in the Happiness Paradox: By observing the public image of popular celebrities and influencers on social media their profiles appear  to be ‘happier’ than the average person (if you take the sentiment of their posts as a reflection of their emotional state). Since we are more likely to follow an influencer than the other way around, this skews the average ‘happiness’ of your social circle upwards, making us seem to be less happy when compared to others (unless you are the influencer!)


What does this mean for digital marketers?

Could advertising on social media by working with these social media influencers be endorsing activities that damage consumers’ wellbeing? This is not wholly the case, as while numerous studies have scrutinised the detriment possibly caused by social media, others have applauded the positive aspects– increased social support, enhanced sense of community or even the promotion of health and wellness behaviours that directly enhance wellbeing. Hence, if these campaigns are utilised to advocate these positive factors then social media, and by extension advertising, hold potential to help bolster happiness levels in modern society.


Bollen, J., Gonçalves, B., van de Leemput, I. et al. The happiness paradox: your friends are happier than you. EPJ Data Sci. 6, 4 (2017).

Michel, C., Sovinsky, M., An, E. P. & Oswald, A., 2019. Advertising as a major source of human dissatisfaction: Cross-national evidence on one million Europeans. [Online]
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Torres, N., 2020. Harvard business review. [Online]
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[Accessed August 2020].

Rindfleisch, A., Burroughs, J. E. & Denton, F., 1997. Family Structure, Materialism, and Compulsive Consumption. Wisconsin State Journal, 23(4), pp. 312-325.

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