The Highlight Reel: Why We Believe in the Dream Lives of Others

Credit: Ben White

A few years ago, my then-partner came home one day to tell me that two of our friends, a couple who seemingly had everything together, had split up. I remember feeling shocked and totally confused. They were the golden couple, the ones whose solid relationship was the envy of all who knew them. How had it all gone so wrong?

It took me some time to realize that I was asking the wrong question. The real question was, who had actually said that it was all going so right?

The answer was: nobody. Neither of our friends had ever professed to have the perfect relationship. Sure, they’d looked as though they were happy, but the truth was that they had presented the parts of themselves that they wanted to show the world, and then the world had filled in the blanks with a ton of assumptions. Because that’s what we do so well, right? We see snapshots and then we decide that we know the full story. It’s a highlight reel and we make it into a feature length movie.

We do on this on social media all the time. We look at status updates and pictures in square boxes and we create a story about someone else’s life. I have lost count of the amount of times in the past that I’ve seen a series of photos and within thirty seconds I’ve written a novel about the life of a stranger, usually titled Their Life is Soooo Amazing and Mine is a Big Fat Mess.

Does that sound familiar? Have you written a novel like that in your head, too?

Why do we do it? I think first and foremost it’s because we have been conditioned to respond to advertising. Many of us have been raised on commercials that show perfect people, wearing perfect clothes, eating perfect food, with their perfect friends/hair/teeth/kids — the list is endless. We buy into this ideal, quite literally. Money makes the marketing world go around.

Because of this overt (and subliminal) advertising, our brains are already wired to believe in perfection. More than that, we need to believe in it. The lure of a “better” life can give us something to strive for so we dedicate time, money and energy in the pursuit of perfect and we glorify the people who we perceive as already having attained a dream life.

Is it a dream life, or is it a dream lie?

Who truly has a life without any stress, any fear, any arguments, any grouchy moods, any screaming kids, etc.

I’m not saying that everyone on social media sets out to intentionally deceive us, because I don’t think that most people do. Instead, I believe that most of us are being selective about what we share, and that’s less about dishonesty and more about self preservation.

It’s smart to hold something back. Making our entire lives public can feel as though all the pieces of us are constantly being dissected and analyzed (i.e. judged) and that’s a breeding ground for stress and disease.

But, because of this self preservation, because of this selectiveness, other people fill in the blanks (just as I did with my friends relationship) and create a story that isn’t true. Or at least, it isn’t the entire truth.

In addition to writing, photography is one of my most loved creative expressions. I really enjoy putting a picture together that enables me to process my thoughts and feelings and also offers me a medium in which I can communicate with others. When I create a image for Instagram, I like to find the beauty in the ordinary, I like to look through another lens and consider an alternative angle.

For me, it’s not about “staging” photos. It’s not about pretense or perfection or wanting anyone to believe that my life is effortlessly wonderful (hello, pressure!). It’s about assembling the fragments of me, in a way that feels honoring to me. I am creating a corner of my world that is intentional and mindful and joyful. It is also truthful. That doesn’t mean it’s the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me Social Media Gods.

Why then, would I look at anyone else’s online life, and assume that their words or photos or uber cool hashtags mean that they are somehow enjoying a dream life that I do not have access to?

Why indeed.

On any given day I will wake up with a certain amount of energy. How I choose to direct that energy is up to me. I can decide to spend hours fantasizing about the dream lives of others, or I can invest that energy into creating more opportunity into my own life. Staring at pictures of Beyoncé and fabricating a story about her existence isn’t going to make one iota of difference to my own reality.

Stories can be inspiring and motivational. If seeing snapshots from someone else’s feed spurs us on to achieve goals of our own, that’s great. As long as we don’t allow ourselves to be consumed with longing for a life that is part truth and part illusion. Much of what we envy doesn’t even exist.

Don’t spend your years yearning for all the things you think you don’t have. Be in your own life. Let yourself in to your own life. It’s full of highlights that are waiting to happen.