I was in Shanghai — in the Bund specifically — eyeing the skyline across the river. After a while I turned my eyes away from the static buildings to the dynamism of the people around me.
I spotted a 20-something caucasian woman break through the crowd and walk up to the railing beside me. She was pretty, blonde, possibly French, and wore a neutral look on her face. She turned her back to the view, grasped her phone in both hands, and raised and extended her arms in front of her.
Her face lit up with the most radiant of smiles.
She took a picture.
Her face instantly flashed into a look of absolute discontent as she drew her arms closer to look at it. She clearly didn't like what she saw as she made a face and raised her arms again. The radiant smile returned.
This process continued for several more rounds. Eventually she stopped and walked away. The neutral look had returned to her face. She barely even looked at the view.
She likely posted the prettiest photo of herself on Instagram with a caption like, "I fucking love Shanghai! #sobeautiful #travelingrocks #spaceshipbuilding."
This scene illustrated perfectly that we're becoming a society that cares more about the perception of living a fulfilling and happy life rather than striving to do so. And these kinds of posts undermine our ability to do so. They make us feel dissatisfied with with lives. "Look at Marie having the time of her life in Shanghai, and I'm here watching Netflix on a Friday night."
A lot of the unhappiness and dissatisfaction we feel is derived from a perceived lack of excitement, fulfillment, and love in our lives as compared to others.
What you see on social media is a well manicured and carefully-selected highlight reel. Couples don't show their 3 AM arguments. People don't post about committing adultery, about them contemplating suicide, about the huge mistakes they make at work, or photos of them curled up on the couch with a hangover — unless they're calling out for sympathy. Instead it's soliloquies about their one true love, big smiles, beautiful scenery, and inspiring stories of adventure.
Even when you ask your friends how they're doing they reply with "good." It's only until you draw it out of them with careful questioning, good timing, and plenty of trust. Only then can you glimpse the misery that rivals your own. Also compounded by the apparently happy, fulfilled, and successful people around them, such as you.
My nomadic experience
In my mid to late-twenties, I lived out of a backpack for nearly 3.5 years. I frequently received messages from friends from around the world that expressed jealousy of my life. It was often in response to a photo, video, or story I have shared of some hilarious or weird situation.
Even though friends were continuously envious of my new life, I'm wasn't happier than I was before travelling, and a lot less happy than I am today. I was constantly confronted with loneliness. I had an incredibly hard time forming good habits such as meditating, eating well, and exercising. I wasn't adding value to society or working towards a goal. I wasn't learning any new skills. I got hit with food poisoning fairly regularly. And I slept in a lot of rooms filled with complete strangers for many nights.
There were many times that I was envious of the lives of my friends. The fun they were having together. The shared experiences I was missing out on. In those moments of despair, I tried to focus on the wonder and excitement that travelling brought me. The reasons why I chose to be on the other side of the world. The benefits I was getting from it. My years travelling were some of the most formative. Incredibly difficult and draining, but I'd trade them for nothing.
The human condition
You will always find reasons to be unhappy — especially if you keep looking for them.
It's a natural part of being human. It's how we evolved past our cave-dwelling ancestors. We look for flaws in our current state and seek to improve it. Now sucks — maybe this will fix it.
You will always feel that there's some void in your life that needs filling. You're only making that void larger by comparing your whole life with the highlight reel of others.
With all that said, this is not a post of despair at the human condition. Instead, I challenge myself and you to stop for a minute before lamenting about our lives. Instead, step back and think about the positive aspects of your life.
Try to be happy with the fact that this might be as good as it gets, and that there's nothing out there that will profoundly change that. Long-term travels, a higher-paying job, a loving partner, or the latest iPhone will not fill the void. Accept that reality and strive to be happy within it.
In times you find yourself comparing your life with someone else's, instead compare it with someone that has significantly worse problems. Those with life threatening diseases, crippling poverty, or indentured slavery. Being home alone on a Friday night watching Netflix won't feel so bad.
I'll try to do the same. I'll fail a lot. Most of the time.
All we can do is try to be more mindful. More content with what is.