I once heard a much admired middle-aged man describe a critical decision point in his life. He was doing dishes after a long day at work, harried by the noise and chaos of young children. His wife was frazzled from her day dealing with tantrums and homework and the commotion of family life. Standing with his hands in the sink he couldn’t help but think, “This is not fun! In fact, it all feels pretty frustrating, meaningless, and unhappy. Is this really all life was meant to be?” But he determined to stick it out — to keep trying to do his best as a father and a husband, and to go forward. Now many years later, knowing some about the success in both his professional and family life, it was hard to imagine he could ever have had such thoughts.
But of course he had! Because the truth is, life is full of mundane moments, unmet expectations and plain old holding on, knowing that the harvest often seems late in coming. And even when it comes, there will continue to be stretching challenges. That is why so many resonate with Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones’ well-known quote, “Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he's been robbed. The fact is that most putts don't drop. Most beef is tough. Most children grow up to be just ordinary people. Most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration. Most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. … Life is like an old-time rail journey — delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders and jolts interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed. The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.”
But being OK with the realities of reality can be hard — made harder today by the ubiquitous presence of social media in our lives. The term “Facebook depression” was first coined when a series of studies identified a link between social media use and negative emotional feelings. The largest of those studies released just months ago found that young adults who used social media very frequently (more than the average of 30 times per week) were 2.7 times more likely to experience depressive symptoms compared to others. This followed a host of studies finding that Facebook use consistently predicted negative mood and a decline in happiness the more it was used over a specific time period.
The University of Houston set out to find out why, publishing their results in 2015. They identified “social comparison” as the cause, which won’t surprise anybody who has spent time on social media. When we use social media we automatically start comparing ourselves, our lives, our children, our vacations, our opportunities, even our popularity to others. It doesn’t matter if the comparison involves looking up at someone more successful, popular or attractive than ourselves (upward social comparison) or looking at someone less so (downward social comparison). Either way, social media use with its inherent “social comparison” is linked to negative emotions. Indeed, as President Teddy Roosevelt aptly surmised, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Notre Dame law professor Amy Barrett offered a powerful explanation of this in a recent address to law school graduates: “The trick of comparison is that it rarely shows you reality … we don’t look at — and in fact can’t even see — the whole picture. We forget about the many good things that are uniquely ours, and there is no way we can know about the spots where the other person suffers. Comparison is like looking in a fun house mirror: it distorts the picture.”
There is an antidote, of course. And it doesn’t mean obliterating social media use, though it may mean decreasing it. Gratitude expert Robert Emmons calls it “practicing gratitude.” When we consciously identify things in our lives to be grateful for, we experience profound benefits. Emmons’ summary of these benefits include lower blood pressure, healthy heart functioning and lower risk for heart disease, improved immune function, more efficient sleep, and reduced risk for depression and anxiety. “Practicing gratitude” also predicts positive behaviors like “more frequent exercise, better dietary intake, less smoking and alcohol abuse and higher rates of medication adherence.”
Why? Emmons concludes, “Gratitude blocks toxic emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret and depression, which can destroy our happiness. … It allows individuals to celebrate the present and be an active participant in their own lives … it focuses the mind on what an individual already has rather than something that’s absent. …”
In short, gratitude gives our lives back to us, enabling us to act rather than be acted on, and to appreciate the journey that makes that learning possible.
Jenet Erickson is a family sciences researcher and a former assistant professor at Brigham Young University.