All your friends have better lives than you do
Freshman Michelle Lee has her smart phone in hand, one finger casually scrolling through the copious amounts of photographs in her Instagram feed. The feed shows a variety of photographs showing expensive designer purchases, lavish vacations and her friends having fun at their respective colleges. She releases a heavy sigh as she subsequently double-taps the photos, giving the posts a “like,” a sign of approval. She double-taps most of the photos, but despite this act of validation, another emotion settles in: envy.
These underlying feelings of jealousy can be described by the phenomenon known as lifestyle envy: the coveting of another individual’s life circumstances. While the constant envy toward the lives of celebrities reflects this phenomenon, lifestyle envy has taken on a whole new face within the realm of social media. What differentiates it from its presence in social interactions is social media’s ability to provide exposure to another person’s life through pictures, posts and tweets. While users are provided the ability to choose who to follow, ultimately this level of control and autonomy stops there, for she no longer can control what these accounts choose to post for their subsequent followers.
The prevalence of lifestyle envy has its roots in humankind’s natural inclination to compare themselves to their peers, and the transparency of social media only makes it easier for one to assess the achievements of their peers. This comparison is called “relative deprivation:” the perception of an unfair disparity between your own situation and that of another’s. The acknowledgement of even the slightest unfairness between two parties can often result in one-sided feelings of jealousy, envy and personal dissatisfaction. With social media quickly becoming synonymous as a replacement of social interaction, relative deprivation increases with every Instagram photo, Facebook post and Twitter update.
The ease associated with social media usage — often one of its most attractive qualities for people — can be concomitant with the feelings of lifestyle envy. With greater exposure to the lifestyles of other individuals comes a heightened awareness of socioeconomic inequalities, which can further increase the envy and covet of another individual.
Lane Anderson, writer of the Deseret News National article, “The Instagram effect: how the psychology of envy drives consumerism,” said social media makes it easier for users to feel envious due to the widened and extended avenues for comparison in which users have the ability to compare their lives to those of others outside their immediate peer group.
“Those opportunities for comparison have changed,” she said in an interview. “It used to be remotely just compare ourselves to our peer group, and now we have opportunities to compare ourselves to all kinds of people who have way more resources than we do.”
A study conducted in 2015 in Computers in Human Behavior, “Facebook use, envy and depression among college students: Is Facebook depressing?” tested the relationship between Facebook envy and depression amongst a group of 736 college students. The study spotlights “Facebook envy”: the envy felt after consuming other people’s personal information on the site. Researches in the study analyzed this relationship through the social rank theory: a theory of depression primarily concerned with the aspect of competition.
The research study found envy is one of the most common emotional consequences of social media usage, and also hypothesized that the more Facebook friends an individual has, the greater sense of Facebook envy that user will experience. Patrick Ferrucci, one of the researchers involved in the study, said individuals who use social media less for communication and more for surveillance are more vulnerable to becoming envious of others.
“You’re seeing all these images and messages about good things from other people, and obviously on social media the vast majority of people only tend to share positive things, because they’re concerned of their online identity, and so they’re consistently sharing positive things,” he said. “If you’re just kind of watching this consistently over time, and say something’s not going great in your life or maybe you’re thinking ‘why isn’t this happening to me,’ you’re more likely to become envious.”
Ultimately the study found that the relationship between Facebook surveillance and depression specifically amongst college students is further perpetuated by Facebook envy.
“Facebook users are exposed to successes, material goods, positive relationships, and other information that other users share on Facebook,” the study said. “Exposure to these pieces of positive information about others can lead to feelings of envy, as information consumers can feel subordinated to others who seem to publish positive experiences all the time.”
In addition to Facebook, the rising popularity of photo-sharing site Instagram is another prime example of lifestyle envy. With over 300 million active users per month, lifestyle envy has become synonymous with Instagram envy, characterized by the pang of jealousy Lee gets when she sees her friend post a picture from a lavish vacation.
The dominance of photographs on Instagram presents a modern-day voyeurism, allowing any individual to take a peek into the lives of others through streams of quick photos. Similar to the Facebook study, the more an individual logs onto Instagram and scrolls through their feed correlates to the amount of envy welling up inside as they are able to observe the lifestyles of peers.
Whether a photograph from a lavish vacation, an expensive designer watch or even a mouthwatering meal from a five-star restaurant, slews of Instagram photos blatantly shove desirable items and lifestyles in people’s faces. With Instagram being a photo-dominated social media network, the sense of subordination and relative deprivation can rear its ugly head with each passing, filtered photograph. The pictures themselves become objects of desire.
“All that stuff is on Instagram,” Anderson said, “and we curate that stuff so that it looks really great. We only put the best of that stuff on Instagram, so when you look at that kind of stuff your basis for comparison becomes a lot steeper.”
While historically it has always been a common occurrence to compare oneself to the lives of the rich and famous, Instagram allows average individuals to present their lives as if they were a celebrity. It is this sly deception that can easily elicit envy from those who share no personal connection to the person. The ability to essentially fabricate a life of glamour and luxury only through a series of photographs can be seen as both a cause and effect of lifestyle envy. What many users often ignore is the sheer fact that Instagram allows individuals to construct a false reality, and as a result, false perceptions, of themselves. For instance, websites such as InstaBuyaGram.com allow users to buy followers.
Ferrucci said social media platforms make college students more susceptible to lifestyle envy because of their larger networking groups and a lack of media literacy.
“[They’re] not thinking as much about what they’re seeing, not thinking about how people could be presenting themselves in a way that’s not necessarily true or in a way that makes them look as good as possible,” he said. “Because of that, maybe they’re more likely to run into these issues.”
Instagram’s photographic and visual component, Anderson said, contributes to both its appeal and downfall. She said it is the immediacy of a visual that heavily contributes to increased feelings of envy.
“There’s something about the visual, seeing what someone else has that is much more envy-inducing than hearing about what somebody else is doing,” she said.
For high school seniors teetering along on the bridge to college, lifestyle envy becomes especially prevalent when students post status updates of prestigious schools they have been accepted to. Reading where their peers got accepted can often elicit envy and even inadequacy, especially if it is a prestigious institution such as an Ivy League university. Anderson said these feelings of envy have their roots in the widened basis of comparison offered through social media.
“Instead of comparing themselves to their immediate 30 or 40 best friends, they’re comparing themselves to several hundred people and where they’re getting in,” Anderson said. “And so in a larger sampling, there’s gonna be more people who are getting into prestigious colleges to be jealous of.”
However, envy can also serve as a source of motivation for people who wish to improve their lifestyles. This method falls under the term of benign envy, in which individuals take feelings of envy and use them as inspiration for self-improvement.
Whether through reading words or looking at pictures, the prevalence of social media in today’s society has created a hyper-awareness towardsthe achievements in the lives of others. This increased exposure only influences individuals to further compare themselves to peers out of the inclination of self-improvement and competition.
“You know the thing about a lot of happiness in life is just being happy with what you get,” Anderson said. “I think Instagram makes that hard. Social media and Instagram in general do make that hard.”
Celisa Calacal is a freshman journalism major who is ready to throw her phone into the lake. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.