Focusing Illusion: Why Your Friend’s Perfect Life on Social Media is Nothing Like It Seems
You don’t need to die to get a glimpse of the “paradise.”
Just one look at your social media news feeds and you can already witness perfection in every form imaginable.
Filtered selfies. Mouth-watering food porn. Your friend’s wedding photos worthy of a spot in a magazine. And endless vacation photos that make you think what the hell you’re doing with your boring, pathetic life.
Social media started as a way to build meaningful connections. It continues to play that role, but our celebrity culture has transformed it into one big PR machine accessible by everyone.
We’ve all heard that social media only show people’s highlight reels, not their bloopers nor behind-the-scenes. However, when the green-eyed monster wields its power, it only takes seconds to forget that.
What happens next is a serious threat to our mental health.
In a 2014 study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, researchers found that the more time people spend on Facebook, the more likely they are to become depressed.
The reason? It fuels their tendency to compare themselves to others.
It’s in our nature to compare. We even have social comparison theory to explain this behavior.
However, things can take an ugly turn if we compare someone else’s paradise to our own shitholes, or if we compare ourselves to someone at a very different stage in life.
Not partaking in these self-destructive social comparisons is ostensibly the only logical choice to stop this madness. But breaking free from the comparison trap isn’t as easy as it seems.
The first step, according to psychology, is to stop your brain from tricking you.
Shattering the “Grass is Greener” Illusion.
From the outside, I was an accomplished bloke.
I bought my family a house, traveled to exotic locations, published my first book, and appeared several times on national TV. All of these happened before my 29th birthday.
But behind closed doors, I was miserable.
No matter what kind of success I achieved, I always saw myself as a loser. The Impostor Syndrome consumed me to the core.
I looked around and constantly compared myself to others. My insecurities grew worse.
Other people’s ‘bigger’ achievements unleashed my inner bitch.
Social media showed me snippets of other people’s lives as if to prove I’m not as awesome as I thought I was.
A former classmate with a bigger house, an acquaintance who traveled to nearly all countries in the world at 25, and the younger writer with more fans, book sales, and everything.
It was a losing game.
I gained nothing from the experience other than a renewed energy to beat myself up.
I questioned my life choices. Heck, I questioned everything about myself.
Comparing myself to others is like wearing 3D eyeglass that made me look at things from a different perspective–a twisted one that exaggerates others’ success and downplays my own.
But is the grass really that greener? Or is it an illusion created by my own vulnerable mind?
If there’s one thing psychologists have proven time and again, it’s the truth that humans suck at making judgments.
For instance, a study by Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemanreveals that our tendency to assume more money equals happiness is rooted in a phenomenon called “focusing illusion.”
We believe that luxury cars, expensive trips, and fat bank accounts will make us happy because of the images portrayed on social media.
In reality, however, we’re only looking at one aspect of life (money) and forgetting that happiness is often the sum of different factors (e.g. marriage, physical looks, friendships, family, etc.)
Not surprisingly, Kahneman’s study shows that although high-earning individuals rate themselves as generally happy, a closer look at their lives suggests otherwise.
Their survey shows that people who earn $100,000 and above spend a lot of time commuting and working with little or no time to enjoy what they earn.
In other words, focusing illusion makes us think that someone’s grass is greener than it actually is.
Here’s why: Our brains aren’t trained to always see the bigger picture.
In fact, they can only hold 3–5 data points of memory at a time. This means that when you’re focusing on how green the grass is, your brain can only process what’s on the surface and neglects all the worms and shit that make its color brighter in the first place.
We all fall victims to focusing illusion.
Remember the last time you were persuaded to buy stuff you don’t actually need? Salesmen know more about psychology than they care to admit.
I remember when I bought an ice cream maker through TV shopping, I was convinced I got a great bargain. But after trying it for a couple of times, the ice cream never came close to what I saw on TV.
To my disappointment, I traded my hard-earned dollars for something that only looks good on advertisements.
It’s a prime example of “expectation versus reality” gone wrong. And it’s all because salespeople trick our brains to focus on the positive aspects (selling points) of a product and give them more importance than they actually deserve.
We’re merely scratching the surface.
A study in the Journal of Happiness Studies explores how focusing on something we lack can totally bend the way we perceive life in general.
Two sets of questionnaires were given to 97 student volunteers aged 19 to 36 years. Each participant answered the Body Satisfaction Scale followed by Life Satisfaction Scale or vice versa.
Scientists found out that those who first answered the Body Satisfaction Scaletend to suffer from focusing illusion and associated their life satisfaction to how they look or perceive themselves.
Focusing illusion can lead to more serious repercussions.
For example, it can convince you to prematurely leave your partner, job or place for someone or something better, thinking that grass is greener on the other side of the fence.
But just because someone or something looks good on the outside doesn’t mean it’s better than what you already have.
Focusing illusion is just that–an illusion.
Fortunately, there are four words that can help you escape from it:
Mind Your Own Grass.
It’s hard not to compare when you remember your difficult childhood, asshole parents, and limited opportunities while others around you go through life with relative ease and comfort.
Reality check: Life will always be unfair. Anyone who tells you otherwise is delusional.
Instead of letting other people’s greener grass overwhelm you with envy and greed, focus on what you have and make the most out of it.
Always aim to better your life instead of obsessing over other people’s deceptively perfect lives.
As Ernest Hemingway once said, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
Minding your own grass means acknowledging that you’re not in the same playing field as anyone else.
Repeat after me: Your friend’s timeline is not the same as yours.
Have you ever noticed that grass has different shades of green? A lighter color doesn’t mean the grass is inferior. Rather, it’s a sign that the grass is in an earlier phase of development.
If you plant a grass seed at fall, it will emerge with a lighter color by spring. The color will continue to be paler than the more mature grass until its root system becomes well-developed.
Life, just like the grass metamorphosis, is all a matter of timing.
We all reach milestones and experience setbacks at different points in our lives. Your ‘rock bottom’ moment may coincide with someone’s glorious climb to the pinnacle of success.
That’s ok. No two people have the same timeline.
Life is unfair. It always has been. What makes you miserable is your habit of constantly focusing on what you lack instead of what you have.
The key to happiness no matter what stage you are in life is gratitude. It’s accepting reality not because you can’t change your terrible situation but because you can choose how you react to it.
Buddha reminds us that the secret to a happy life is to learn to want what you have and not want what you don’t have.
As a chronic comparer, this principle has changed my life.
I’ve stayed away from social media and started living my life on my own terms. The perfect life on social media is merely a facade, a time-sucker that can distract you away from your real goals and dreams.
Only when you start minding your own grass will you begin to discover what separates you from everybody else.
You’ll learn how to define your own success, achieve it, and be genuinely happy for those who have also achieved theirs.
I’m not saying you should quit social media, not unless your situation calls for it. Just keep in mind that what you see online is just a fraction of reality in the same way that models’ touched-up magazine photos always hide their imperfections.
Don’t let the perfections you see on social media prevent you from living up to your potential.
Embrace your uniqueness. Trust in the timing of your life. And remember that wherever you go or no matter what phase you are in life, you can choose to mind your own grass.
After all, the grass is always greener where you water it.
This article was originally published in Mind Your Own Grass.