We know that social media doesn’t show the entire truth. It likely doesn’t even show 20 percent of the truth. And yet we still find ourselves feeling envious of others, and comparing ourselves. A lot.
We compare ourselves to strangers we’ve never even seen in person. We take the 10 percent we see of their lives online, and assume that every minute is just as wonderful and wondrous and simple and smooth. Which leads us to question ourselves, our accomplishments, our worth. Which leads us to question our lives.
We compare ourselves to all sorts of images and captions, and usually come up short.
During a particularly difficult time, designer and illustrator Emily Coxhead found herself caught in this comparison trap. Which inspired her to start a powerful, positive project and to pen Make Someone Happy: A Creative Journal for Brightening the World Around You (love that title!). She shares the details below along with what to do when we get stuck comparing ourselves to filtered images.
Q: How does social media and mental health crop up in your work?
A: It’s a huge part of it, and one of the main reasons I started my “happy brand.” I think a lot of people see what I do and think I live in a glitter bubble where there’s no sadness or struggle, but it’s actually the total opposite. The “happy brand” is about me recognizing how much rubbish we all have to deal with in our daily lives—never mind comparing those lives to what we see on social media every day.
When I was going through a tough time myself, two of the main things I noticed impacting my mental health in a negative way were social media and the news we see on our TVs and phones, so I decided to do something about it.
I set up a Kickstarter for The Happy Newspaper in 2015, a newspaper to celebrate only good news. Although I never want to paint over the bad and pretend that terrible things aren’t happening, I do believe that the good deserves to be celebrated. It was only when I began searching for positive news articles that I realized what a difference it made for my mental health.
Knowing that there is still a huge amount of good in the world has had a really positive effect on so many readers of The Happy News and that was exactly my intention. I want to continue this through all different aspects of my brand and work, including my book, which is a reminder that we can all add a tiny bit of happiness to our corner of the world.
Q: What’s one thing you struggle with when it comes to social media and seeing others’ highlight reels?
A: I try to very much see through the ‘highlight reel’; my generation is the generation that knows a world growing up with and without 24/7 social media, so I think that gives us a slight advantage in some ways.
I still compare myself or aspects of my life/work when scrolling through sometimes (I think we all do!). But I try to take it all with a pinch of salt because that photo of somebody on a beach having a lovely time doesn’t necessarily mean they’re on a beach having a lovely time. They might be stuck in an office and are posting that “Throwback Thursday” because it gives them a little boost.
That’s fine, but it can become a vicious circle because most people are only posting their best bits and yet everyone is just living their normal, often mundane and sometimes quite difficult lives at the same time. Your everyday should never be compared with somebody else’s best.
Q: Why do you think we compare ourselves to others’ filtered social media accounts?
A: I guess people have always compared themselves to others. We live in a world that’s constantly telling us what we’re missing out on or what we should buy so it’s become a natural thing for us to compare ourselves and our lives to others rather than being happy with our own (sometimes) messy lives.
With the internet and social media, this has all become far more magnified and has therefore resulted in much bigger issues and harsher impacts on those who use social media.
Q: How do you suggest readers navigate comparing themselves to filtered images?
A: It sounds obvious and a little bit cheesy, but try to remember the quote “comparison is the thief of joy.” Take a step back and focus on you and what makes you happy, because you’re certainly not going to find it in a tiny square on Instagram. We all have different things that make us happy, we all reach different stages in our lives at different times, we all have different focuses and goals… and that’s okay! That’s what makes us human.
In the same way that you don’t need to be friends with people you don’t like, remember it’s okay to unfollow those on social media who have a negative impact on you for whatever reason. Follow accounts or people who make you smile or make you feel better, not worse!
Next time you are posting on social media, ask yourself why you’re posting that image. Is it because it makes you happy and it’s something you want to share with the world or keep as part of your online memory bank, or are you trying to conform to what you think you should post and what you know will get the most likes?
I think either way is totally fine as long as you recognize it and therefore will likely recognize it more when you’re scrolling through other people’s accounts.
Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about social media, comparison-making and unrealistic images?
A: It’s not real. What you see on social media is a distorted reinterpretation of most people’s real lives. We all have sadness, worries, health issues, family struggles and everything in between. The fact that these problems aren’t often shared online can make us feel alone in that dark hole and as though none of these things are happening to others, but that’s simply not true. We’re all on this rollercoaster together and none of us know if we’re doing it right or wrong—we’re just doing our best.
Emily Coxhead is a designer, illustrator and happy thing maker. In 2015 she published “The Happy News,” a newspaper celebrating only the good stuff going on around the world, after a successful Kickstarter campaign that tripled its target. Coxhead has since appeared on BBC, ITV, and more discussing the paper, released a range of greeting cards and merchandise, and is continuing to expand all things happy from the worlds tiniest, most rainbow-filled office. She aims to add a little bit of sunshine to this funny old planet, making a few people smile along the way. Learn more about Coxhead’s work at http://www.emilycoxhead.com.