“How quitting my life in London helped me say no to social media envy”

Posted by
Helen Russell
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From friends’ new babies to promotions, swanky holidays and flash houses: why none of us are immune to social media envy – and what we can do about it...

Two friends are tagged at a new restaurant in town. They’ve met up without me. Which, obviously, means they hate me… A former colleague has started her own company. Must work harder… Another friend is pregnant. Again?! And several more are posing on tropical beaches with umbrella-strewn cocktails.

I keep scrolling through Facebook and feel my mood deteriorate with each new update until I feel poor, underachieving, and low.

Then I look out of the window. And I see that the sun is still shining. And I remember that there’s Lindt 85% in the fridge (legal lady crack) and all’s well with the world.

Existential crisis averted…

I’m pretty good at doing talking myself down from the ledge these days but I used to spend so much time there that I’d practically set up camp, with a mini kettle and a Jaffa Cakes snack pack. As an only child raised in Thatcher’s Britain, the urge to compete ran through me like a stick of rock. Nothing was ever ‘enough’ and I was prone to regular bouts of her-life-is-better-than-mine Instagram envy.

On the face of it, I was doing okay. I had a flat, a partner, and a good job that meant I got to travel all over and meet interesting people (I once got trapped in a lift with Simon Le Bon and had a manicure with The Rolling Stones' Bill Wyman. I know: I worked with them all…).

I also had insomnia, general anxiety and two years of failed fertility treatment under my belt as one by one, friends and colleagues were picked off by motherhood and/or promotions. I was happy for them. REALLY HAPPY FOR THEM (can you tell?).

But I frequently found myself wailing at the moon along the lines of: Why haven’t I got a house? Why can’t I pop out babies while holding down a big job? Why do I feel like I need a nap? All. The. Time? 

So I made a change, quitting my London life to go freelance and moving to Denmark. Mostly because my other half was offered his dream job there, and I thought the place would be riddled with pastries and Mads Mikkelsen-alikes, loosely tethered to every lamppost. I also hoped it would be a place where I could breathe, away from the crush of city life.

And the physical distance from ‘home’ did allow me a mental separation from the old feelings of constant pressure. It was a relief to remove myself from the rat race and retreat to a place where ‘they’ couldn’t get me anymore - whoever ‘they’ were.

Of course there was still social media and Danes are big on Instagram (a common compliment round my way is ‘der er så Insta!’ - 'that’s so Insta!’). But, in a more socially equal society with a better pace of life, I was shielded and spared some of my baser competitive urges.

In fact, I became so Zen that I finally fell pregnant.

These days, work is fulfilling; I have a gang of girls who make me laugh like a drain; a husband who’s only exasperating 33% of the time; and a flame-haired toddler who makes sure I never leave the house unstained. But I’m still not immune to comparison anxiety.

Since my son started nursery, I’ve felt as though I should be doing more. I could be fitter; more successful; busier… I’ve had one baby, but now I’d like two. The finish line has shifted, as it does for all of us. With each new life stage, our competitive set changes - from school to university to new jobs, career changes, relationships, parenthood, even retirement. 

Psychologists have been studying ‘social comparison theory’ since the 1950s, and comparing ourselves to others has long been accepted as one of the key indicators of life dissatisfaction. We’re social animals, hardwired to observe those around us. The trouble is that now we’re doing it online, then torturing ourselves afterwards.

Our grandmothers had no idea what Val from the next village was up to of a Saturday night or how her thigh gap was working out. But today, everything is broadcast - and everything is a performance. The 'spin' we used to reserve for CVs is now applied to all aspects of life and at the times we’re most wobbly, we refer to the digital world for guidance. Which is a terrible idea.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that the more time we spend on social media, the more likely we are to be depressed. The Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen found that regular Facebook users who took a break from the blue and white altar were 55% less stressed; reported higher levels of life satisfaction; experienced better concentration; felt less lonely and were even more sociable after just seven days.

This is because Facebook is a constant bombardment of everyone else’s great news. Or at least, their carefully curated fake news. 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the happier someone seems on Facebook, the more miserable they are in real life. A quick glance at friends currently over-sharing who are having trouble IRL (in real life) reveals this handy translation guide:

  • ‘I love my life!!!!’ = Having a breakdown
  • ‘I’m the luckiest girl alive #besthusband’ = Just rowed/cheating
  • ‘My job is AMAZING!’ = ‘I have to tell myself this on loop because I haven’t seen my front door for days…’

Pull back the curtain and the Wizard of Oz is a short bald man. Every time.

There’s no point comparing our insides to other people’s outsides because we never know what’s going on behind closed laptops.

Having spent the last year learning how to be more resilient and make changes for a new book, I’ve realised that I can’t run away from comparison anxiety or hide from it. Even in Denmark. There will always be someone younger; smarter; more tenacious - wherever I am. And I have to make peace with that. I don’t want my deathbed montage to be me, frowning at a smartphone while chain-eating baked goods and sobbing over someone else’s holiday snaps/promotions/new babies.

What I want is a running-jumping-laughing celebration of life, in all its flawed glory. Preferably scored by the theme from Rocky. It doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing, or says they’re doing: all that matters is that I’m doing what’s right for me.

So now I’m logging off, to walk the dog and watch clouds whipping across a cobalt sky. I might even treat myself to a Solero. And I won’t post a single picture online.

Here are my top tips for opting out of comparison anxiety - and in to life:

Come off Facebook

*Smelling salts, quick!* Can’t go cold turkey? Stop fake-booking and start posting reality: dishevelled kids on first day of school; coffee spillages; chronic hangovers; bed hair #wokeuplikethis 

Celebrate failure

Everyone fails. It’s just that we only hear about successes. Check out Princeton Professor Johannes Haushofer’s failure CV or start your own a la Lucy Mangan.

Ignore the haters

Never. Read. Below. The. Line. Acerbic, irrational comments from passive aggressive types misdirecting their anger/childhood issues should not take up precious brain space. Jog on, trolls.

Find a new distraction default

Listen to the radio; stare out of the window; do star jumps – there’s always a better distraction technique if you’re on the brink of a social media comparison bender.

Remember Sunscreen

In the words of Baz Luhrmann’s 1999 hit (only?) single: ‘The race is long and in the end, it's only with yourself’. No one’s life’s perfect and joy is found in pockets. Embrace pockets (Always).

Helen Russell is the author of The Year of Living Danishly – Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country (Icon, £8.99). Her new book, Leap Year - How to make big decisions, be more resilient and change your life for good, is available for pre-order now (Two Roads, £12.99).

She tweets @MsHelenRussell