If we’re exploring the role of relationships in happiness, we need to look into social comparison.
It’s great that relationships make us happier, but what if our friends are more successful? Or less successful? What impact does it have when we see photos of other people’s cool vacation and new houses?
How does our mindset and happiness change based on comparison to the people around us? Or the people we see on social media?
And how can we be happy in an age when everyone shares everything online?
Let’s find out!
Comparing Up and Comparing Down
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a happiness researcher that we leaned heavily on in exploring the science of happiness, described an early experiment that she conducted as a graduate student at Stanford.
She was studying people whose friends described them as exceptionally happy or exceptionally unhappy to find out how they viewed themselves relative to others.
She expected that the happiest people would compare themselves to people that were less successful and that the unhappy people would compare themselves to people that were more successful.
After all, if you viewed yourself as more successful than average, that would seem to be a cause for happiness while viewing yourself as less successful than everyone else would seem to be a cause for unhappiness.
Measuring Yourself Against Yourself
That’s not what the study found, however.
Instead, the happiest people didn’t compare themselves to others at all, while the unhappy people compared themselves to people all across the spectrum.
This set off a string of research on the subject that ultimately found that happy people celebrate with and find joy in the success of others and sympathize and show concern for the failures of others, but ultimately measure their own achievement against internal standards.
Unhappy people find themselves jealous and insecure at the success of others and relieved by others’ failure.
It Could Be Worse
It’s easy to see these results and try to take a short cut.
Learning to measure yourself against internal standards is hard work, so most of us are starting out in a place of comparing ourselves to others.
If that’s the case, then it seems better to compare “downward” than “upward.” It is easy to read this as suggesting that we should compare ourselves to people who are less successful or lucky or healthy in order to avoid jealousy and insecurity.
While an “it could always be worse” outlook can be helpful in keeping perspective, actively comparing yourself to people that are less successful or lucky or healthy can often lead to guilt and fear. Measuring yourself against others leads to negative consequences regardless of whether the comparison is positive or negative.
Be careful of the line between “this is not as bad as it could be” and “this is not as bad as what happened to Jim.”
Social Media is Bringing Us Down
A discussion of comparing ourselves to others these days would be incomplete without a discussion of social media.
We live in an age where the highlights of everyone else’s lives are always on display. We can see our friends’ kids on Facebook and their amazing vacation adventures on Instagram. We follow people on Twitter and SnapChat (is that still a thing?) and all sorts of other venues that lend themselves to an easy comparison between ourselves and what we see of others’ lives.
The biggest problem with understanding the impact of social media on happiness is that change happens fast. It is hard to fully judge the effects of social media because good peer-reviewed studies take a long time and social media evolves quickly. Studies published in 2006 got their data from MySpace and Friendster, which many current social media users have never even encountered.
With that said, most of the research suggests that social media is making us less happy.
The few good studies we have suggest that the more time you spend on social media, the less happy you are.
Relationships and Social Media
Given that we know strengthening our relationships makes us happier, this may seem counterintuitive at first. On second glance, though, most of our time on social media is not actually spent strengthening relationships
While we do spend some time tweeting at each other and commenting on each other’s posts, most of our time is spent passively scrolling through and seeing what everyone else is up to. This naturally leads us to compare our lives to those of our online friends.
In addition to being more social comparison in our lives, which makes us unhappy, people tend to share the most impressive aspects of their lives on social media. Seeing these highlights and comparing them to the whole mess of our own lives, highs and lows and everything in between, makes us jealous and insecure.
Ditch the Shame
Comparing ourselves to others is a completely natural tendency.
From a very young age, kids are jealous when they see that their friends have cooler toys or later bedtimes or light-up shoes.
Social comparison is deeply ingrained in us and social media is helping to push it to the surface.
There’s no reason to be ashamed of comparing yourself to others. It is not a moral failing, it is a natural instinct.
But if we want to be happier, we need to fight that instinct.
We need to actively train ourselves to avoid social comparison. Step one in this process is just noticing when we do it. If we can catch ourselves in the act we can develop the self-awareness to call ourselves out.
This in and of itself will help us compare less.
In the same way that meditation builds our focus through noting when our attention wanders, noting when we are comparing ourselves to others can help build our ability to avoid it in the future.
The Social Media Time Vortex
Next, be mindful in your use of social media.
The sites are designed to keep you there as long as possible. They want you to stick around and scroll through your feed for as long as possible. Fight it!
Social media can be a useful tool if you are using it to build and strengthen relationships. Reach out to friends you haven’t seen in a while. Share a story with a family member. Talk to people.
Once you catch yourself just scrolling, leave the site, close the app, and move on to the next activity.
The research shows that there is a spectrum when it comes to social comparison. The more you compare yourself to others, the less happy you are and vice versa.
This is good news! It means that you don’t need to be perfect. You don’t need to do everything right.
You get a happiness boost by just pushing yourself a little bit.
So pick something small that you can do today to compare yourself less to others and start living a happier life.
Join the Conversation!
Do you have experiences with happiness and social comparison? Have you found social media to affect your happiness? What tips do you have for mastering social media? Let us know in the comments!