Teddy Roosevelt said “comparison is the thief of joy.” When comparing our life to the lives of others or to what we thought our lives would be, how can we experience joy? Comparison takes us out of the present moment and gives power to something outside of our own control. How can we combat this phenomenon?
For starters, we have to notice when we’re comparing ourselves to others, and nowhere is this easier to see than on social media tools like Facebook. If we think about it, we know that Facebook isn’t a full picture of people’s lives, yet our minds trick us into thinking that it is. When we catch mere glimpses of others’ lives via social media, we’re missing the bigger picture of a complete person who likely has both the joy we see them publicly celebrating and who also has pain. Our society doesn’t promote public vulnerability, so we rarely see a balanced picture of a real life. It becomes easy for us to create stories of what our lives “should” be – like his! or like hers! so much happier! – and to become chronically dissatisfied when our lives aren’t as picture-perfect as others’ seem.
When we notice that we’re comparing ourselves to others, we can take power away from the comparison so that it doesn’t rob us of our joy. We can do this by asking ourselves if it helps us or if it hurts us to focus on another’s story. Being mindful in those moments makes a big difference in how we experience our lives in a realistic context. By figuring out whether our thoughts are helping or hurting us, we can relate to them differently, and we can think better about what to do next. What we do next depends most upon our values.
A values-based approach to social media use is a mindful one. When you log in to a tool like Facebook, ask yourself why you’re visiting. Perhaps you are logging in to stay in touch with friends and family, to share in people’s joys, or to learn something. I urge you to go deeper with regard to your relationship with technology. Social media apps, in general, can help you to achieve your values, but that’s less likely if you are you using them to disconnect from reality. While using them, ask yourself if you are able to be present with what’s happening in the moment. Be aware of whether or not Facebook is helping you to achieve that value of staying connected versus triggering a negative mind-train that compares and leads to depressed thoughts.
If using Facebook or any other social media tool makes you feel depressed or anxious, you have the power to defuse these unhelpful thoughts. You can challenge them, unhook from them, and watch them like they are on a stage or like words on a karaoke screen. Your thoughts are not facts. And you always have the option to decrease your use of these tools until the point at which you feel like you are achieving your values of connectedness without so much use that you start experiencing a downside.
Take your time off-line to reflect on what, to you, makes up a meaningful life. There will always be richer, better-looking, smarter, more successful people, but even those folks have problems. Competition via comparison is an unwinnable game. Can you drop the rope in the tug-of-war of trying to be like others and focus, instead, on what you actually want for yourself?
If you struggle with social comparison leading to negative thoughts, ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) may be a helpful therapy for you. ACT helps you change your relationship with painful thoughts and feelings. It enables you to develop a transcendent sense of self, to live in the present, and to take action, guided by your deepest values, to create a rich and meaningful life.