In the space of a single day – and rather poignantly, as it was whilst researching this piece – three friends felt downcast because they didn’t measure up to someone else. One was contemplating ditching her yoga class as she felt like a loser with her un-bendy body next to others. Another was feeling extra chubby and self-conscious because her friend had lost weight and she hadn’t. And another said she was thinking of deleting Instagram as she felt too depressed watching everyone’s idyllic life posts and Maldives beach shots when “normally I’m so tired all I want to do is lie in a darkened room”.
Comparisons. Why do we feel the need to make them – and, usually, to our own detriment? It turns out we’re genetically programmed to do it. “Making comparisons is natural, it’s how we as animals judge our self worth, by comparing ourselves to those around us,” says Will Storr, the author of Selfie. “We can’t help but do this. It’s how the brain operates.” Naturally, social media exacerbates the problem and makes other people’s lives seem so much more glamorous/together/loved than ours. “When they study the effects of social media there’s an idea in psychology called Perfectionist Presentation – people choose the most perfect pictures to put on Instagram etc,” he explains. “When we’re surrounded by everybody else’s perfect moments it impacts on our self esteem.”
But well before modern technology came into it, social psychologist Leon Festinger proposed the Social Comparison Theory in 1954. “This states that there is a drive within individuals to gain accurate self-evaluation and that they do this by comparing themselves to others,” explains consultant clinical psychologist Dr Nihara Krause, founder of Stem4, a charity for teenagers with mental health issues. “These comparisons can be ‘upwards’ or ‘downwards’” she explains, with upwards being what happens when people compare themselves to those more fortunate than them and downward relating to those less fortunate.