It's common sense to not post pictures on social media that may convey an irresponsible lifestyle to current or future employers. But there's a subtler dynamic at play we should consider, especially today, National Camera Day, before we upload that beautiful Hawaiian sunset. What if the pictures we post that show us in a positive light are damaging in their own right?
Three years ago, German researchers published a study called "Envy on Facebook: A Hidden Threat to Users' Life Satisfaction?" It found that one out of three people experienced feelings of jealousy and depression after viewing other people's Facebook pictures. The greatest culprit that bummed out the most people? Vacation shots. For single people in their 30s, happy family pictures made them sad. For women, attractive pics of their female peers made them feel inadequate and invidious.
Posting pictures online is a form of status display. Each says, "Look at how fit and fortunate I am." We never downgrade our status and post pictures of our miserable selves with captions like "Here's me eating a can of tuna fish because I'm broke," or "Here's me alone on my birthday." The worlds of Facebook and Instagram are hyperbolic, humble and not-so-humble brag fests of beautifully composed and filtered moments of adland perfection, a curated hyper reality that reality has a hard time keeping up with.
Our photographic status updates are almost always a way to raise our standing in the eyes of our friends and co-workers, which always means raising our status relative to theirs or even above theirs. It's a form of sharing that excludes. After all, you can only admire my beautiful meal at the three Michelin star-restaurant. You can never have a taste. And on some level, I'm communicating just that to you and inviting your "I hate you so much! J J" comments.
Employers have a sense of this, too. I've heard of employees being granted sabbaticals to travel to exotic places with the explicit instruction that they lie about their time off and not post any pictures on social media of their epic trips, lest their co-workers get the idea that they can ask for time off of their own.
I believe that all of this is part of a larger and more troubling crisis in our culture—a crisis of happiness.
Martin Seligman, a positive psychologist, created the PERMA model of the five core elements of psychological well-being. P stands for positive affect—the feeling of joy that comes from a delicious meal, a glass of red wine or a postcoital snuggle. It just feels good. E is for engagement—the opposite of boredom that comes from the thrill of discovering and experiencing new things. R represents authentic relationships—not the 700 friends you have on Facebook, but the three who will help you avoid bankruptcy and hold your hand on your deathbed. M is for meaning—that sense of purpose that comes from knowing you're living for something greater than yourself. Last and least is A for achievement—the thrill of getting that gold star or promotion or Porsche that makes you feel like you're on top.
The problem with our hypercompetitive culture, of course, is that human happiness risks being reduced to just one aspect of well-being: achievement. When we eat that delicious meal, we need to win at eating that delicious meal and post our achievement online. When we go to Machu Picchu, instead of embracing that trip as a life-enhancing experience, we spend much our time seeing ancient ruins through a camera on our smartphones. Our relationships and parties and concerts are badges to be displayed to our less fortunate peers. Even our charity work and involvement in causes are now ways to publicly display our moral achievements.
When pictures become nothing but badge value and the public exhibition of our personal brand—that is, achievement porn—it's not a coincidence that envy and negativity follow.
In the end, perhaps the greatest lesson for us, as viewers of other people's photos, is to allow ourselves to truly share in the happiness of the people who count us among their friends, at least nominally. Why not delight in the vacations, family birthdays, personal beauty and culinary adventures of our peers? Why not let our employees share their lives with us, not as possible HR infractions or envy engines, but as evidence that our people are open about their lives, generous in sharing their lives through the creativity of photography and, just maybe, simply happy to be alive?
Supposedly two out of three people are able to escape the achievement-envy trap. Maybe we can all learn to see the bigger picture.
Snap happy and share away. And, by the way, happy camera day!
Ted Florea is (@TedFlorea) is chief strategy officer of Partners + Napier, New York.