“Comparison is the thief of joy.”
- President Theodore Roosevelt
Recently, a young lady named Mattie* came to me for advice. She was distraught because she felt as if she was behind on achieving all of the important milestones in life. “It’s not fair,” she began. “Everyone’s life is so much better than mine. All of my friends have boyfriends or fiancés. I try to meet people online and they are all jerks. I hate my job. I don’t make enough money. I don’t like my body. Everyone else looks better than I do. I’m just tired of everybody else’s life being so much better than mine.”
I asked her what proof she had that everybody else’s life was so much better than hers. She responded that she could tell by the pictures people posted on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, etc. “Everyone looks so happy,” she lamented.
I told her that her frame of reference was skewed if her sole determination of a person's happiness was what they posted on their social media accounts.
I explained to Mattie that what we see on social media is carefully curated and filtered. And the filtering is on so many levels. First, the images that show unhappiness, insecurity or discontentment are often completely excluded. Second, of the photos displayed, people or information in the background that do not support the narrative being promoted are edited or cropped out. And then finally, of the images that do make the cut, they have often been manipulated with filters and diffused lighting so that fine lines are smoothed out, imperfections erased, faces slimmed, eyes widened, hair lengthened, etc.
This type of creativity and editing are fine if one is looking at such an image for what it is: an interpretation of a moment. However, when a person takes curated images at face value and then compares themselves to what they see, they run the risk of killing their joy.
Real life is not filtered. It is not curated. Life is life. There are usually no cameras present when we lose our job, flunk a test, get dumped, lose a loved one, or are simply having a rough day, but those lows are just as much a part of life as the highs.
What makes life the beautiful and textured journey that it is are the twists, the turns, the highs and the lows. And if we are honest with ourselves, we can probably acknowledge that we enjoy a high all the more after coming through a low. How much more do we enjoy a promotion after working for it over the course of time? How much more do we savor getting an “A” on a test in a subject that we find challenging? How much more do we enjoy purchasing something we’ve longed for after saving up for it? How much more do we enjoy true love after not having it?
Our goal in life should not be achieving the status that we think others have. If we are always trying to “keep up with the Joneses,” we will never win our own personal race because we will be competing in someone else’s. We will find ourselves chasing after someone else’s life and not living our own.
As I concluded my conversation with Mattie, I reminded her that her life was uniquely hers. Voyeuristically watching someone else’s life does not teach us how to live our own. All of our lessons and experiences, the pleasant and the grueling alike, prepare us for the next phase of our unique life’s journey.
She sighed, but seemed to receive what I said.
“So Mattie,” I concluded, “Stop watching everyone else’s life and live yours.”
*Name has been changed to protect identity.