We know that the perception of inequality can have a negative effect on happiness. Comparing oneself to others is a potent and dangerous temptation. Indeed, studies show that most people would prefer a situation in which they earned less money, but were better off than their peers than one in which they earned more on an absolute scale, but less relative to their peers.
When I was in business school, I speculated that this effect caused a lot of unhappiness. Rather than celebrating their incredible good fortune, far too many of my classmates would compare themselves to the titans of industry they read about and conclude that they could never measure up. Just because you’re unlikely to match the accomplishments of a Jeff Bezos doesn’t mean you should beat yourself up and call for the Prozac.
Now social media might be having this effect on everyone, not just MBA students with excessive self-regard. One of the things that has made Twitter so popular is the ability to access the (ostensibly) unfiltered thoughts of the rich and famous. We feel closer to our favorite athletes and entertainers (or in the Valley, entrepreneurs and VCs). In many ways, we feel like we have a personal relationship.
In one sense, this access has a democratizing effect, much like the popular tabloid practice of running unflattering photos of starlets shopping at the local Costco. But it also has the effect of making the rich and famous feel more like peers. And if they feel more like peers, we’re more likely to use them as a basis for comparison.
It used to be that people would compare themselves to other people in their neighborhood or town. And while there’s bound to be a successful car dealer or a popular local teacher, at least we could realistically aspire to similar levels of success. Athletes and Hollywood celebrities were like far-off deities. Now, that distance has vanished, causing many to wonder, “If Snooki can be rich and famous, why aren’t I?”
By encouraging less realistic comparisons, social media could end up making people less happy and well-adjusted.
But the answer isn’t to ban Twitter and Facebook. They’re just the disease vector.
Rather, we must learn to avoid pernicious comparisons and focus instead on the intrinsic motivations that can bring us true happiness.