Mirror, mirror on the wall; who’s the fairest of them all?
You’re staring at your phone, aimlessly scrolling through Facebook or Twitter or Instagram to kill some time, and you come across a status that gives you pause. It’s a photo of your friend, standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, just a single stop along the path of her glamorous European summer tour. You feel a pang of jealousy. After all, you’d have to break the bank to do such a thing!
But what you don’t know is that your friend, perhaps, did break her bank to stand next to the Eiffel Tower, that it’s possible she went deeply into debt to fund her trip. Maybe she can’t afford it, but went anyway.
The scary thing? Her picture doesn’t communicate any of that—the debt, the grueling overtime, the financial stress, the depression. None of it. All you see is a carefully framed shot designed to paint a perfect picture—pretty wallpaper in a rotted house. And yet here you stand, envying her life and possibly readying yourself to dive into that same hardship. If that’s the case, then author and activist for financial literacy, Rachel Cruze, has one thing to say to you: stop comparing yourself to others.
In her new book, “Love Your Life, Not Theirs,” Cruze makes her case against “comparison living,” the intense materialistic rivalry that has become an unfortunate part of contemporary culture. Technology has brought us closer together than ever before—each of us is globally connected in a way that previous generations haven’t been, especially through social media. We can not only read about, but actually see the lives of others unfolding each day.
And therein lies the problem.
Where, before, as Cruze writes, we had to physically see the Jonses’ stuff to keep up with them, now we can see what they have by simply pulling out our phones. We have an entire world to which we compare ourselves, and we suffer financially for it. If you thought keeping up with the original Jonses was hard, try keeping up with millions of them.
Facebook reports that their average user spends fifty minutes per day on their site—and that’s only one of the big four social media networks. The time spend on all social media combined could be much higher for some—upward of three hours. That’s three hours a day spent gazing at the accomplishments of other people, and it affects us. When we look into the mirror, we stop seeing ourselves, and begin to see those we deem superior, taunting us for our ineptitude and failure.
In 1954, psychologist Leon Festinger brought social-comparison theory to the forefront, arguing that people have the innate tendency to track individual progress by comparing ourselves to others. And when that social comparison leads to feelings of inadequacy and insecurity—which it inevitably does—we experience depressive symptoms and low self-esteem.
Festinger’s research into social-comparison theory has never been more relevant. Social media isn’t reality—not exactly. It’s life, idealized. And so when we compare our everyday to someone else’s most glorious, posed, photoshopped moment, naturally, we come away with a bruised sense of self-worth. We have weighed and measured ourselves against the life of another, and have been found wanting. Or so we think.
This perception affects our finances. When we feel that our lives and accomplishments don’t quite stack up against those of others, we begin to think that we need more. More money, better cars, and bigger homes. We develop deeply engrained, destructive financial habits as a result of this style of thought, plunging ourselves into debt in an attempt to keep up with a bunch of strangers.
How do we stop doing this? Cruz, in her book, gives us seven positive financial habits that can help you break the comparison lifestyle and pave the way to financial success, but let’s talk about the psychology of what’s going on for a moment. After all, a problem understood is a problem that can be conquered.
When we want the life of someone else—their things, their accomplishments, and their social circle—we don’t actually want what they really have. We want idealized aspects—aspects that not even our target of jealousy can live up to.
The trick to overcoming this is to stop idealizing what you see on social media, and start humanizing.
You can do this through a technique called visualization. To do this, go ahead and find that person you’re a little jealous of. Open their social media account. You’re probably staring at all the things you want, right? A perfect life? Now, close your eyes, and imagine that person locking themselves out of their car. Because they have. Imagine them having family issues or health or psychological issues. Because they, quite likely, suffer from at least one of those. Imagine them with every single flaw you ascribe to yourself. The point is this; realize that this person is a human being. They are as flawed as you.