How Our Use of Social Media Fuels Envy, Comparison, Anxiety, and Depression

Through social media we have a continual window into the lives of friends, pseudo-friends, and celebrities.

Highly Idealized Image

A few weeks ago I was looking at my Rescuetime dashboard and saw that I’d spent about an hour and 45 minutes on Facebook in September. Then I noticed some other interesting patterns:

  • I’d hit my goal of publishing something twice a week
  • Our revenue at Unmistakable Creative had increased
  • I was in a much better mood than I had been in the months prior

Excessive use of social media gradually erodes our attention and shifts it from rewarding activities like expressing our creativity and doing deep work to comparison, envy, and status anxiety.

Status Anxiety

There was a time when social media served as a great way to connect with friends and family members and keep up with what’s going on in their lives. But as the algorithms designed to capture our attention have become more sophisticated, we only see things like engagements, babies, and significant accomplishments. We often don’t see posts from our closest friends or family members. Every time we write a status update or upload a picture, we’re measured, gradually becoming desensitized to the toxic impact of quantifying our humanity. This leads us to keep feeding the beast and attempting to outdo what we did before, resulting in a perpetual state of anxiety.

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A Prioritization of Resume Values over Eulogy Values

Thanks to the power of social media anyone can become famous. And they can become famous for being famous, not accomplishing something of depth, substance or value. 40% of high school students have the goal of being famous. In his book, The Road to Character, David Brooks makes the distinction between resume values and eulogy values.

The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They are the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being-whether you are kind, brave, honest, or faithful: what kind of relationships you formed. — David Brooks, The Road to Character

Our addiction to social media leads us to prioritize resume values instead of eulogy values. It causes us to value clicks over character, eyeballs over hearts, and attention over affection But, what’s the point in having 5000 “friends” if you couldn’t call one of them to bail you out of jail at 2 am? Your likes, tweets, fan and follower counts aren’t going to be written on your tombstone.

Self Obsession, Envy, and Comparison

A few months ago I was wandering through a bookstore in Boulder and stumbled upon Will Storr’s book Selfie: How We Became So Self Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us.

“We are living in an age of perfectionism, and perfection is the idea that kills. Whether it’s social media or pressure to be impossibly perfect twenty-first century iterations of ourselves, or pressure to have the perfect body, or pressure to be successful in our careers, or any of the myriad ways in which we place overly high expectations on ourselves and other people, we’re creating a psychological environment that’s toxic”says Storr.

The inevitable byproduct of our self-obsession is comparison, envy, anxiety, and depression.

Sometime last week I logged on to Twitter. I saw a tweet from one of our recent guests on the Unmistakable Creative podcast. His book was one of the top-selling books on Amazon. Within minutes of reading that tweet, I felt envious that his book had sold far more copies than mine. If I didn’t have a twitter account, I wouldn’t have even known.

Comparison is toxic to our creativity and our well being. There’s always someone who has more…. more fans, followers, traffic, likes, etc. Social media-fueled comparison is a game in which there is no endpoint. It causes us to lose sight of the fact that we are getting a deliberately curated, highly filtered one-dimensional view of someone’s life. And we forget just how much joy can be found in creating for an audience of one.

Study after study shows that social media contributes to symptoms of anxiety and depression. The variable reward and addictive design of nearly every social platform keep us coming back from more, but never satiating our desire for attention.