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How does your life compare?

The election is behind us, which means we can look forward to nearly two years of freedom from political ads. For months, we’ve been deluged with ads claiming that our elected leaders are stupid and corrupt, followed by ads insisting that their political challengers are corrupt and stupid.

Campaign ads are finally behind us, but now we’re entering another season of misleading communication—this one meant to convince you that everyone you know is much happier than you. I’m referring, of course, to Christmas letter season, that time of year when your mailbox is filled with triumphant tales of the year your friends and family members are concluding.

You’ve read these letters. They’re the ones insisting that little Billy cured cancer during recess. His sister, Sally, just finished her album of cello duets with Yo-Yo Ma. Your high school girlfriend just took a break from her career as a supermodel to publish a bestselling cookbook. Your college boyfriend asked Google to stop promoting him because the constant moving to larger offices was cutting into his volunteer time.

Even if the letters aren’t packed with fabulous details of enviable lives, the mere fact that somebody found time to get their Christmas letter out may testify to a life much more put together than your own.

(I once had a co-worker whose mother delighted in going against the grain by producing Christmas letters that featured awkward and embarrassing moments from the family’s year. Those letters were wonderful.)

The whole “look at our fabulous lives” carnival of comparisons used to be limited to the Christmas season, but now it is a year-round phenomenon. Thanks to social media, we can all continually put forth idealized versions of ourselves who are filled with desirable qualities and living amazing lives.

Dutch university student Zilla van den Born demonstrated the power of digital false realities last year when she faked a five-week vacation in Southeast Asia. After waving goodbye to her family at the airport, she took a train back to Amsterdam and spent 42 days in her apartment creating the appearance of a fabulous trip. Through the magic of Photoshop, she was seen snorkeling, visiting a Buddhist temple, sampling authentic Thai food and lounging on tropical beaches.

Eventually, she admitted to the hoax and explained, “I did this to show people that we filter and manipulate what we show on social media—we create an ideal world online which reality can no longer meet. My goal was to prove how common and easy it is for people to distort reality.”

In an age where social media “friends” outnumber real face-to-face relationships, it’s easy to forget that the image we see through the window of social media has been carefully curated. We post the pictures where we look the best, tell the stories with happy endings, weigh in with knowledgeable insights gleaned from a Google search and share our witty retorts when we’ve had a day to think of them.

As Brad Paisley sang, we’re all “so much cooler online.”

Social psychologist Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory says people are driven to evaluate themselves by making comparisons with others. When we look at people who are better off than us, our self-worth takes a hit. When we look at people who are less well off, that downward comparison makes us feel better.

Facebook seems to encourage upward comparisons. Recent studies suggest that Facebook users tend to see their friends as being happier people with better lives. If peering into the lives of others through social media (or Christmas letters) makes you feel inadequate, remember that you’re comparing your “behind the scenes” view of your own life with the “highlight reels” of others.

Social comparisons seldom lead to real happiness. As poet Max Ehrmann wrote, “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”

Instead, work to follow Paul’s advice to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15, NIV).

Realizing that other people’s lives aren’t about you frees you to enter into their joys and sorrows as a friend, rather than as a competitor.

Doug Trouten


— by Doug Trouten

Trouten is a professor of communications at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul.