A friend I hadn’t talked to in a few years called me out of the blue the other day. “So,” she asked, “is your life as good as it seems on Facebook?” I smiled, because my life does look pretty good on Facebook. I have a beautiful family, I travel to exotic locations, I’m active and stay in good shape, etc. It all photographs very well. But I answered her honestly, “no one’s life is as good as it seems on Facebook.”
On Facebook (or Instagram), I only post the best moments. I share the best pictures of myself and my family. I post the most amazing experiences that I have in my travels. I share my most exciting professional and personal accomplishments. But as good as all these things are, they only represent a small percentage of my overall life.
This weekend, for example, I’m laid out flat with a bad back. I have a herniated disc that flares up several times a year. When it goes out, I’m in miserable, excruciating pain and can’t do much other than lie around on the floor for three days. It will take a full week before I’m back to normal. But what do I put on social media about this experience? Not a peep.
And this is only one example. In my social media feeds you can find tons of pictures of my kids at their most adorable. But all the temper tantrums, bedwetting, and feverish sleepless nights don’t get so much as a single post. Professionally, you can see the amazing accomplishments that I am most proud of, but none of the setbacks, failures or anxieties. You can see the highlights of my best travel experiences, surfing in Bali, snowboarding in Japan, my latest trip to Ireland, etc. But nothing about hours spent in airports, canceled flights and disappointing hotel experiences.
It is not my intention to be deceptive—to craft this fictional persona that appears better than I really am. It just naturally evolves.
Positive psychology research shows that we benefit from sharing good news with other people. People’s happiness is not only determined by the good things that happen to us but by how many people we share it with. Broadcasting good news amplifies it, making it more meaningful and relevant to our lives. Researchers have also pointed out the benefits of savouring, or “noticing and appreciating the positive aspects of life.” When I post things on Facebook or Instagram, I am keeping a record of the most precious moments that I want to remember and cherish in the future. I don’t want to remember all the times I spend wrestling with temper tantrums or back pain.
Related article: The Past is your Reservoir of Happiness
This seems to be the unspoken etiquette of social media. We are posting things that people can “like.” Save the whining about your struggles for the bartender at your local pub. Your Facebook friends want happy posts. If you get too morose on Facebook, the site’s own algorithms will start suppressing your posts in favor of something more shareable, like happy cat videos.
The problem with Facebook’s rose colored filter is that much of human happiness is relative. We only decide how happy we should be by comparing our lives to everyone else’s. This is why, in the Olympics, “bronze medalists are happier than silver winners.” The silver medalists compare themselves to the gold medal winners and feel remorse that they didn’t win. The bronze medalists compare themselves to the non-medalists and feel lucky for having medaled.
Some attribute the rise in depression and suicide, particularly among teenage girls to social comparison on sites such as Facebook. It’s hard to measure up to our friends when we see only their highlights but are all too familiar with our own personal lowest moments. This is the great irony of social media. We come to Facebook to feel happy and connected and we end up feeling miserable and lonely.
The key, I think, is to see through the illusion. What we see on Facebook is a happy, cartoonish version of real life. While we scroll through our friends’ posts liking their good news, congratulating their accomplishments, and admiring their talents, we need to realize we have no idea what else is going on. We don’t know what burdens people are carrying. We don’t see the struggle.
So when you talk to a friend you haven’t spoken with for a while, don’t ask them if there life is as good as it seems on Facebook. It isn’t. Ask them to tell you what’s really going on. Ask them to share something unlikeable. Ask them to tell you the biggest challenge they are facing. Real questions lead to real conversations and maybe . . . just maybe . . . real relationships (remember those?)
by Jeremy McCarthy
If you want to see how good my life is you can follow me on Instagram.