The other day, I was so pleased with an apricot-almond smoothie I made that I decided to post it on Instagram. First, though, I browsed friends' feeds. Forty-five minutes later, I was almost dizzy from the endless slide show of the Perfect Life: one person serenely paddleboarding ("Got the hang of it after one lesson!"), another lounging on a hotel bed ("Just had the best. Massage. Ever"). Oh, and a smoothiethis one perched on a hibiscus-covered balcony over-looking a Caribbean beach. I grabbed my phone and deleted the photo of my now schlumpy drink.
These days, it's gotten impossible to not feel like you're being one-upped online. You ran a 5K? Big deal, when your co-worker posts pictures of her half marathon...for charity. Meanwhile, social media users have perfected the art of simultaneously moaning and boasting, aka moasting: "Someone just asked me what I was studying in collegehello, I'm 34!"
I realize these posts and pretty pictures are often curated and edited. So why do I still have that constant, dispiriting feeling that my own life pales in comparison? In fact, researchers are discovering that being immersed in everyone else's general awesomeness online can be mentally bad for you. A study from the University of Michigan showed that the more time we browse Facebook, the more our sense of well-being drops and lonely feelings jump. One German study reported that after people spent time on Facebook, a full one-third felt frustrated, upset, or envious. (Friends' vacation snaps riled them up the most.)
This feeling is intensified as we increasingly take our relationships online, says psychologist Gregory Jantz, PhD, author of Hooked: The Pitfalls of Media, Technology, and Social Networking. "One of the biggest groups of Facebook users is women age 32 to 45," he notes, "and about 35% of the younger ones admit that the first thing they do after they crawl out of bed, before they go to the bathroom, is check Facebook." Adding to our neediness is the addictiveand sometimes maniacalpursuit of "likes." According to one consumer-trends survey, 62% of people say they feel better about themselves when others approve of something they post on social media. The flip side is the insecurity that creeps in when only a few people "like" your photo, and the jealousy you feel when a friend's photo gets a flurry of thumbs-ups.
Of course, it's human nature to want to present your best self to the world. The ancient Egyptians threw on kohl liner and their most stylish linen tunic before hitting the market. "There's something alluring about creating an online persona that says, 'I'm interesting, I have a well-kept home, I eat good foodthis is my life!'" says Andrea Bonior, PhD, adjunct professor of psychology at Georgetown University. "We look to our social media profiles to validate what we want to believe about ourselves." Yet this fluff fest can lead to anxiety about being exposed as a fraud, as in living in fear that a high school pal will comment, "Haha, I remember when you had a much larger nose!" beneath your glam picture.
To end the jolts of jealousy, Jantz has a suggestion. When you read a post that leaves you feeling less than ideal, remember that we all scrupulously control our self-image. I know it's true. Recently, I posted a picture of myself and someone commented, "You look amazing!" Well, yes; that's because I held the camera so high above my head, it could have been a satellite photo from space. (Whereas if I look down at my phone, my reflection bears a startling likeness to Donald Trump.)
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It also helps to be aware of what sets off self-doubt. "If you hate your old kitchen, maybe you shouldn't repeatedly check out Mary's kitchen renovation," Bonior says. My downfall is others' fitness triumphs. A few shots of a friend's cyclo-cross race are inspiring; scrolling through hundreds makes me think, Why bother? and shuffle off to the couch. Timing is another trigger. I look at these fabulous pics before bed, when I'm tired and need to decompressexactly when I feel the most sensitive.
Another cyber solution is to fully get behind your posts. As Bonior says, "You can choose to use others' experiences as a yardstick, or you can believe your standards are valid in and of themselves." Also, back away from the computeroften. "Relationships are best conducted in real life," Jantz says, "not 140-character sound bites."
Jantz's words were on my mind when I saw a friend's Instagram shots of a trip to Greece. Instead of caving in to jealousy, I called and told her that her photos were like a Ralph Lauren ad. She laughed and said, "Don't look too close or you'll see that my eyes are red." Ten minutes beforehand, she and her husband had had a big money fight; the trip, she conceded, was great but had been a costly mistake. We commiserated about finances and made plans to meet. I felt a surge of pleasure as I hung up.
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Now if insecurity sneaks up on me while I'm online, I take it as a sign to switch gears and go for a run, make another unphotogenic smoothie or check out the YouTube clip my mother sent of, say, a Speedo-clad squirrel eating an ice cream cone. Also, maybe I'll avoid Beyoncé's Instagram account altogether.