The Best Way to Ruin Your Life

Are you falling prey to this bad habit?

Photo by Justin Luebke on Unsplash

Open Medium on any given day, and you’re bound to find a bunch of articles telling you how to improve your life, break your bad habits, 100x your goals, etc, etc. It’s like an endless stream of New Year’s Resolution ads…in April.

This is not one of those articles.

This is a story about how to ruin your life.

The Thief of All Joy

Social media is here to stay. Facebook, Instagram, and countless other social networks have done incredible things for our world. They’ve connected long-lost friends and classmates, overthrown dictators, and made communication easier than ever. For many in the developing world, social networking apps are their primary means of communication.

No, I’m not going to say that social media is ruining our lives. But there’s a more subtle, nuanced side to the ubiquity of social networks, and it’s having profound effects on adults and children the world over. Social media is robbing us of the joy of everyday life, hijacking our expectations, and leading to depression. Not because they are inherently bad, but because they fuel one of the most destructive human tendencies we have: comparison.

Please don’t misunderstand me: social media doesn’t cause us to compare ourselves to those around us — it’s a natural human tendency — but it has given us an outlet to numb the bland, ho-hum, boring details of our lives. It’s an instant dopamine hit, a means of escaping our everyday realities.

But in giving us such an easy outlet to escape, it also robs us of life’s everyday pleasures.

Theodore Roosevelt supposedly said that “Comparison is the thief of all joy.” I don’t know if he actually said it. Doesn’t really matter — it’s still true. The fact that photos of that quote written a perfectly hand-scripted Bullet Journal 48 gazillion times on Tumblr and Instagram (oh, the irony) doesn’t make its truth any less valid.

I’m sure you’ve experienced the comparison syndrome before. Just look at the “Explore” page on Instagram, and you’ll be drawn into an endless time-suck filled with other (seemingly) perfect people with their (apparently) perfect lives.

Faced with meticulously-curated Instagram feeds full of craft coffee, quiet mornings, “authentic” living, organized homes and perfectly well-behaved toddlers, what’s our natural human response? We compare.

My Explore page is mostly sports cars and fancy watches, hallmarks of a life of luxury that I have not attained. The flashy images bait me into clicking…and scrolling…and scrolling…

I stop for a moment and think about all the things I don’t have.

Man, wouldn’t it be nice to have a car like that?
Ooh, look at that beautiful house!
I wish I would automate my business and spend my days sipping Mai Tais on a beach somewhere…

We’ve all fallen prey to it. We’ve all played the comparison game.

We compare our (otherwise normal, mostly happy) lives to social media fakery, convincing ourselves that we don’t measure up. It breeds discontent.

Yes, comparison is the thief of all joy.

Social Media: Bad for You?

There’s a growing body of research that explores the effects social media has on our brains and our well-being. A study published in the June 2016 issue of Current Opinion in Psychology demonstrated that the envy that stems from comparing yourself to your Facebook friends can lead to depression.

Photo by Josh Rose on Unsplash

Comparing yourself to others is a natural human response. Researchers call these “counterfactual comparisons,” and in the age of social media, they’re having profound effects on our society. When we’re feeling bad about ourselves, we tend to compare our lives with those around us who are not as successful, not as wealthy, not as good-looking.

But thanks to the algorithmically-driven content that we’re surrounded with every day, the tables have been turned on us. We’re bombarded with images of those who are more successful than us, more wealthy, better-looking. We can’t escape.

Notice the key word in that definition: counterfactual.

That’s the comical thing about how we compare ourselves to others on the Internet. In the back of our mind, we know that these comparisons aren’t fair. We know that everybody curates their Instagram to the Nth degree, that most of what we see on social media is a lie.

Deep down, we know that these comparisons are counterfactual. But that doesn’t diminish their potency.

It is only when we can recognize these counterfactual comparisons for what they are that we can resist it and reclaim our satisfaction with our lives. I’m not trying to knock social media entirely — it has responsible, beneficial uses.

But I am asserting that we need to be more aware of the effects that such technologies are having on us — not just on a societal level, but on a very personal, human level. What is social-media-fueled comparison doing to our relationships? To our self-perception? To our very brains?

Maybe the title of this article isn’t entirely fair: maybe your seemingly innocuous scrolling on social media won’t actually ruin your life.

But it definitely isn’t making it better.