Why Your Real Life is Your Best Life on Instagram

I often wonder what a pioneer would think if I let them scroll through my Instagram feed.

Sculpted bodies, bright clothing, filtered images from places all around the world, dogs dressed in clothes, cats, cats and more cats, decadent food that’s a far cry from hardtack and roots. Would they even believe this is the same world they lived in?

Curated perfection comes at a cost

It’s no secret that technology has accelerated life in a way no one could’ve imagined. And social media is leading the charge.

From humble beginnings on platforms like MySpace to the curated perfection of Instagram, social media has fundamentally challenged and changed how we relate to each other.

Millions of people are addicted to the social slot machine of social media, and many of them have figured out that the bigger the coin you put in, the bigger the coin you get out. A photo of your best angle on a beach in the Caribbean with a piña colada is probably more popular than one of you mashed on the couch with microwave popcorn.

Illustration of woman taking a glamorous selfie of herself. Authentic on Social Media pbs rewireCredit: Adobe
When we only post the highlights, we rob people of the full picture.

“Social media is where we engage in self-image manipulation,” said Andrew Selepak, a media professor at the University of Florida. And the feedback we get from that manipulation is intoxicating.

But whether it’s taking lavish vacations, visiting the best restaurants or paying for Botox and veneers, the cost of perfection can be staggering. The fact that you can rent a jet plane just to take pictures should tell you something about this emerging fake-it-till-you-make-it value system.

It seems that thousands of people out there are willing to pay anything just to get likes.

“The platform is insatiable,” said Brittany Ward, founder of A Marketing Whisperer. “The more high-ranking content you give it, the more it needs to maintain that profile’s baseline popularity.”

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Lonely together

It’s easy to say “Well, that’s only a problem if you’re an influencer.” And maybe that’s true for some. But the underlying influences that come with participating are difficult to shake — particularly for those who grew up under the all-seeing eye of social media.

As a result, many young people are obsessed with starting over, with indulging in the wide-eyed wonder that comes from always keeping your life in the honeymoon stage. And many of them are constantly moving more for the experience than the desire to put down long-term roots. Photos of new apartments, exciting first days on the job and living a life where you jump from place to place always garners a lot of attention online.

But what if in the process of living for adventure and following our hearts, we’re sacrificing something we can’t quite touch yet — the future?

“Life isn’t always exciting and it isn’t always filled with highlight moments,” Selepak said. “Expecting this or chasing this will leave a person unfulfilled and chasing that next high that may not come.”

What will come is a lifetime of social, familial and financial debts: if you’re not planting and tending to seeds you can harvest 50 years from now, what will you harvest from?

We’re already seeing the first results. Loneliness is on the rise among young adults and correlates directly with social media use. Household debt is always on the rise, and the environmental impact of a spike in tourism is under global scrutiny. So, what is there to do?

Try celebrating normalcy

One of the healthiest ways to combat the destructive thoughts and actions spurred by social media is to turn your focus to normal life. There can be novelty within stability.

Rather than only posting when you get a promotion or take a vacation, make the little things — like cooking at home or visiting the park — a big deal.

“Use Instagram as a means to celebrate and share your authentic personal interests and values,” psychologist Elizabeth Gilbert said. “If you only post those things that are relevant to your true interests and values, then it doesn’t matter how many likes you get, because the purpose is simply to celebrate or share something that’s meaningful to you rather than simply to get likes.”

If you’re struggling to determine your motive for posting, Gilbert suggests you consider these things:

  • Is this really important to me? Or do I just think people will like it?
  • How does this align with my true interests and values?
  • Am I sharing this because I’m excited about it or because I want to prove something?

Some celebrities and brands have made a push to be more real on Instagram. And Instagram Stories makes it easier to focus on sharing the day-to-day details rather than just the major highlights. Making efforts to show the more normal parts of your life through this outlet is a good way to present a well-rounded profile. It can be a refreshingly honest take on life for both you and your followers.

“When we only post the highlights, we rob people of the full picture,” psychotherapist Whitney Goodman said. “They get this really distorted image of our lives. It also reinforces this belief that people are only interested in the good things that are happening, and not our full experience of being human.”

Always take breaks

Even if you devote your Instagram efforts to celebrating normal life and investing healthily in your future, it’s still a good idea to completely step away every now and again.

Recent research suggests that constantly taking photos reduces your enjoyment of an experience, so put the phone away sometimes and let the moments unfold naturally.

“We get so focused on picture-taking, we miss the experience itself,” said Robyn LeBoeuf, professor of marketing at the Washington University in St. Louis Olin Business School and coauthor of the study, in a news release about the research.

Other research suggests we experience stuff differently when we’re trying to capture it for public consumption on social media.

“When you take pictures for yourself, you don’t need little cues to signal that it was Christmas, because you were there,” said researcher Alixandra Barasch, an assistant professor of marketing at New York University, in a news release about the study. “But when people are taking photos to share on social media, they’re actually trying to put themselves into a third-person perspective — not the lens through which they originally saw the experience.”

Testimonies on the mental health benefits of going dark on social media aren’t difficult to find, and many therapists recommend it.

“I’ve had clients who delete their social media accounts, usually leaving one for professional use only, and the effect is overwhelmingly positive,” licensed marriage and family therapist Amy McManus said.

“My best advice is that instead of Instagramming normal life, you should just live it.”

As with most things, it’s up to you to find the social media practice that helps you feel the best. But if you’re one of the many who has found themselves booking plane tickets to Thailand on credit, or checking your phone hundreds of times a day for the next notification hit, it’s probably time to make a change.

Start by enjoying your normal life for a while — your future self will thank you for it.

Cara Haynes

Cara Haynes is an editor and freelance writer who thinks words are probably the most important thing we have. She spends too much time thinking about them, whether that means reading the labels on her shampoo bottles or sending novel-length texts to her husband. When she’s not doing word work, she enjoys doing leg work in the mountains with her goldendoodle, Dobby. You can find her wherever there is chocolate-chip cookie dough within walking distance.