Learning to Shun the Instagram Life

“We should just move to the country and live in a tent.”

I mention this idea to my wife every time I’m confronted with one of the realities of living in Park City, Utah. It seems like almost everyone here is an athlete of some sort, and they take their sports seriously. From mountain biking to skiing, I’m surrounded by super-competitive people.

At times, the level of competition can feel overwhelming. Show up at just about any race and you’re likely to see past national champions, members of national teams and people you have seen on television in the Olympics. And while everyone is super-encouraging, it’s hard not to get a bit overwhelmed by how much faster everyone else is. This reality leads to another very real problem: envy.

It’s very difficult to compete without feeling envy. A wise friend once told me that every time you try to compete, you’ll always lose. Because even if you’re the best this year, someone will be better than you next year.

And nowhere does envy raise its ugly head more often than with money. Earlier this year, a former hedge fund trader wrote an op-ed for The New York Times that opened with this line: “In my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough.”

Stop and think for a minute about the envy behind this statement. Something good happened to this guy, but in his mind, it wasn’t good enough because he knew there were other people who received more. Who receives $3.6 million and gets angry about it? People who want to live what I call an Instagram life versus a real life.

If we’re living a real life, we’ve gained the understanding that getting more doesn’t always lead to feeling happier. In an Instagram life, we’re instead focused on making it look like we have a better life than everyone else. But even as we take our own pictures and apply filters to our world, we’re flipping through other people’s photo streams and feeling envious about what we see. We ask, “Why isn’t that our life?” It’s a hard cycle to break because, as my friend pointed out, someone will always come along at some point and be better than you.

The model Cameron Russell explored a similar disconnect in her TEDx talk about modeling. As she noted, even though models have the thinnest thighs and the shiniest hair, they’re also the most insecure people you’ll ever meet because they’re always judged by their looks. According to Ms. Russell, a woman who started modeling at 16, she is insecure because she has to think constantly about what she looks like. So, even as we envy the beautiful people, perhaps they’re envying us for looking average.

Let’s go back to the ex-trader for a minute. He goes on to share in his op-ed how he eventually realized that his envy and addiction to wealth were hurting him, and he left his job. The decision didn’t come easily. Having had a lot of money, he feared walking away from making more. But luckily, he found a way to leave his old life for a new one, even though it doesn’t come with seven-figure bonuses. He broke the cycle of envy and discovered what actually made him happy, and it turns out it has very little to do with what the guy next to him earned as a bonus.

He also believes that wealth itself isn’t the issue, but whether people are capable of believing they have “enough.” But, on Wall Street, as he notes, “that sense of ‘enough’ is rare.”

Thinking we have enough is also rare if we’re leading an Instagram life. It comes in large part from the stories we tell ourselves that feed the envy.

“If I only had a little more money…”

“If I only had a nicer car…”

“If I only had a bigger boat, then I’d be happier.” But that’s the problem.

They’re only stories. Let’s say all those things happened. By making these stories our focus, we’ll never be satisfied. There will always be something else we don’t have that someone else does, and our envy becomes a trigger for all the bad behavior we’re supposedly trying to avoid. After all, it’s really hard to focus on saving as much as we can and sticking with our financial plan if those things get in the way of having what we think we want right now.

So the next time, I mention heading out into the country and pitching a tent, I’m going to remind myself of something important. It won’t be long before someone else comes along and pitches a nicer tent. My envy isn’t anyone else’s problem. It’s mine alone. The same is true for you and your envy. It means we both have a decision to make.

Do we focus on building a real life that makes us happy or do we attempt to live an Instagram life and pretend that it makes us happy?

This commentary originally appeared August 11 on NYTimes.com

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Carl Richards, CFP®

Carl Richards is the creator of the weekly Sketch Guy column in The New York Times and is a columnist for Morningstar Advisor. Carl has also been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Financial Planning, Marketplace Money, The Leonard Lopate Show, Oprah.com and Forbes.com. His simple but meaningful sketches served as the foundation for his first book, "The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money."

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