It’s the early 90s, and Sonja Lyubomirsky is in her first year of grad school at Stanford. With her adviser, Lee Ross, she is studying “exceptionally happy” people. She asks them carefully tailored questions about how they compare themselves to other people. Her hypothesis: happy people feel good about themselves because they tend to compare themselves to people who are less successful.
… You know where this is going, right? Sonja Lyubomirsky and Lee Ross were spectacularly wrong. Happy people don’t compare themselves to less-successful people. They don’t compare themselves to other people at all.
In her book The How of Happiness Lyubomirsky says (p.177):
The happy folks didn’t know what we were talking about! … Faced with such readily available and inescapable opportunities for social comparison, the happy people we interviewed didn’t seem to care. Instead, they appeared to use their own internal standards to judge themselves.
I don’t actually think social media is the devil
What does this have to do with social media?
I feel like I’ve read at least a dozen articles over the last six months about how evil social media is. The narrative goes like this: we know the real, messy, awkward parts of our own lives, and then go ahead and compare ourselves with the curated, happy, beautiful representations of the lives of the people we follow. This makes us unhappy. Therefore, social media is the devil.
You know what? I’m not buying it.
If you’re in the habit of comparing yourself to others, then sure, social media is gonna suck for you. But the root of the problem isn’t social media. The root of the problem is seeing life as a competitive sport with winners and losers.
Look for the beauty in life
I actually think that one of the nicest things about social media is that it gives us an opportunity to see the beautiful parts of other people’s lives. For example, here are some people that I follow on Instagram:
- A wedding photographer who take dreamy pictures and has personal style that will turn your eyes into hearts FOREVER
- An arts editor for a major newspaper whose selfie game is strooooong
- A thrice-published author who lives on a green, green farm, has a to-die-for kitchen, and a black dog and ginger cat who love to cuddle up together
- A harpist who lives in London, travels frequently, and has endless stories of amusing misadventures
- A yoga instructor who writes beautiful poems on her bright yellow typewriter
- A historian who lives by the beach, posts pictures of the blue, blue ocean almost daily, and has a close-knit circle of offbeat friends
And these aren’t people I follow because I’m a fan. I mean, I am a fan of all of these people, but they’re people I follow because I know them, to different degrees, IRL.
I’m not going to lie and say that I never compare myself to others. I definitely have days when I look at people’s #SquadGoals pics and wonder why I don’t have any photos like that. (Actual reason: I just never think about taking pictures when I’m having a good time with friends.)
But on the whole my Instagram feed is a daily reminder of all the beautiful things in life that are right there if you just stop and notice them. Home-baked cookies. Iridescent sunsets. The stillness and greenness of a well-kept garden. Adorable pets. Laughing friends.
And since joining Instagram, the habit of semi-regularly taking pictures of nice things and posting them has made me much better at noticing the lovely parts of my own life.
Avoiding comparison is easier said than done (here’s how to do the doing)
OK, that’s all well and good. But some days, not comparing yourself to others is easier said than done. (And, unfortunately, it’s a habit we human beings are most likely to indulge when things aren’t going so well for us.)
Lyubomirsky gives several suggestions for how you can start avoiding social comparison. One of her suggestions is to write your thoughts down in a journal. Research has found that writing down our thoughts takes the emotional edge off them (which makes journaling a great strategy for negative thoughts, but not the ideal way to record happy moments).
But here’s my favourite of Lyubomirsky’s tips (p.120):
[This is] a strategy I learned from Dear Abby a long time ago. She advised an obsessive reader to set aside thirty minutes every day to do nothing but ruminate [indulge in negative thoughts]. Accordingly, if you find the negative thoughts pushing and pulling, you can truthfully tell yourself, ‘I can stop now, because I’ll have the opportunity to think about this later.’ … More often than not, when the appointed time arrives, you’ll find it difficult and unnatural to force yourself to overthink.