“Comparison is the thief of joy” is a cliché expression that most are likely familiar with. However, with the explosion of social media and interconnectivity, it is a sentiment that is worth revisiting.
The creation of high expectations for our social life, love life, and professional life has been demonstrated to be an impediment to our ability to be happy (Rutledge et al. 2014). For instance, our satisfaction depends not on how much money we earn but rather how much money we earn relative to our expectations about how much money we should earn.
Why Silver Medal Winners and Heavy Social Media Users Are Unhappy
Perhaps the most striking example of this psychological phenomenon is on the podium at the Olympic Games. Researchers have repeatedly found that the bronze medal winners are substantially happier than the silver medal winners (Hedgcock et al. 2020, Medvec et al. 1995). The explanation is the human tendency to engage in counterfactual thinking. Counterfactual thinking is the hypothetical comparison of possible alternatives (counter) to what actually occurred (factual). In the case of Olympic medal winners, the silver medal winners engaged in counterfactual thinking of an upward comparison, such as, “I almost won gold.” On the other hand, the bronze medal winners more frequently engaged in a downward comparison form of counterfactual thinking to the tune of, “I beat out five others and won a medal.”
Another word used to describe this type of thinking is “reference points.” In developing expectations of our ourselves, we often use reference points. In the case of the Olympic medal winners, the reference point for the silver medal winner was the gold medal winner, while the reference point for the bronze medal winner was every athlete in their sport that did not medal. To hear more about this, listen to legendary ice skater Michelle Kwan join Dr. Laurie Santos on episode 3 of the podcast, “The Happiness Lab.”
Without even realizing it, we are using reference points every day, often to our own detriment. All of us have a friend or acquaintance that is better looking than us, smarter than us, a few steps ahead of us in their career, more sociable, or more fit than us. The trouble starts when we begin to compare aspects of our life to someone who is in the top 1% of that given category. For instance, when thinking about our academics, we are likely to compare ourselves to our friend with a 90% average. Then we’ll compare our social life to our most social friend. However, it is very unlikely that our most academically successful friend is also our most social friend. So why would we expect that from ourselves?
This issue is further accentuated by social media. What our network decides to share on social media is effectively a “highlight reel” of their life. We then in turn compare the best of all of our friends’ highlight reels to our everyday life, which inevitably falls short. This, researchers believe, is the psychological process that causes social media use to negatively impact users’ moods (Berry et al. 2018).
How to Avoid the Danger of Reference Points
Above, I provided a link to an episode of the podcast, “The Happiness Lab.” The host of the show, Dr. Laurie Santos, is a cognitive scientist and professor of psychology at Yale University.
In response to growing rates of anxiety and depression amongst students, Dr. Santos launched a new course in 2018, titled “Psychology and the Good Life.” Within no time, the course became the most popular course ever taught in Yale’s 317-year history, with nearly 1200 students enrolled (Leighton 2021).
Demand for the course quickly outpaced available seats, with long waitlists building up. In order to make the content of the course accessible, Santos created an online version of the course on Coursera, which is free for anyone to take. The online version of the course is called “The Science of Well-Being” and includes a deep dive into the danger of reference points. I just started the course myself. It does not have any required readings, and can be completed at any pace.
If you’re not interested in taking an online course, it can be helpful to check in with yourself about your expectations for the various aspects of your life. This exercise can help you to be less hard on yourself. Taking a break from social media is also a good way to avoid the development of unrealistic reference points. In my own experience I have found that during time away from social media I am more likely to have reasonable expectations of myself. One way that time away from social media helps with this is by allowing me to compare myself to how I was yesterday rather than comparing myself to the highlight reels of others. This reference point is an easy one. If I’m currently trying to study more, all I need to do is try to study 30 minutes more than yesterday. Or, if I am trying to be more active, I can just focus on doing 10 more minutes of exercise than the previous day as opposed to opening Instagram and seeing people who are running marathons. Tempering your expectations can help you develop a greater sense of inner peace.
Berry, N., Emsley, R., Lobban, F., & Bucci, S. (2018). Social media and its relationship with mood, self‐esteem and paranoia in psychosis. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 138(6), 558-570. https://doi.org/10.1111/acps.12953
Hedgcock, W. M., Luangrath, A. W., & Webster, R. (2020, November 9). Counterfactual Thinking and Facial Expressions Among Olympic Medalists: A Conceptual Replication of Medvec, Madey, and Gilovich’s (1995) Findings. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0000992
Leighton, M. (2021, January 29). Yale’s most popular class ever was adapted into a free online course that teaches you how to be happier. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/coursera-yale-science-of-wellbeing-free-course-review-overview
Rutledge, R. B., Skandali, N., Dayan, P., & Dolan, R. J. (2014). A computational and neural model of momentary subjective well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – PNAS, 111(33), 12252-12257. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1407535111