Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

Do You Have Valentine’s Day Distress?

Be mindful of social comparison theory when online this Valentine's Day.

If you are not in a satisfactory intimate relationship (and you want to be) you might get depressed around Valentine’s Day. And if you are online a lot you may get really depressed!

So, this Valentine’s Day, do yourself a favor and be vigilant and mindful of social comparison theory (and when you are online in particular). Social comparison theory suggests that we constantly evaluate our happiness, fortunes, life standards, and so forth by comparing our lives to those of others. If you compare yourself to others who tend to have more of what you value (love, romance, money, power, beauty, intelligence) you tend to feel pretty bad about yourself and your circumstances, but when you compare yourself to others who have much less than you then you feel pretty good about yourself. We consciously, and perhaps unconsciously, engage in upward and downward social comparisons daily. This is especially true when it comes to our perceived peer group (friends, family, neighbors, co-workers) and we often tend to move or gravitate towards obtaining the upward social norms around us ("keeping up with the Joneses").

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In the age of social media these comparisons are more intense since you are confronted with typically upward comparisons each time you check your Facebook newfeed. Since people typically post only good news (not so much of the bad news), and typically wish to present themselves in a highly favorable manner these social comparisons can be rather distorted. For example, someone might post pictures from their terrific and exotic vacation with smiling faces all around but not say much about the hassles experienced on the trip or conflicts with their fellow passengers. They may show photos of themselves with loved ones all with happy smiles and kisses yet not discuss the arguments they had before or after those photos were taken. You get the idea.

If you keep social comparison theory in mind, you will be better prepared for the emotional experience of envy, sadness, anxiousness or upset that often is experienced when comparing your life to others and most especialy with those demonstrating upward comparisons.

As we approach Valentine’s Day, many are likely to reflect on their love life (or lack thereof) and compare their relationship satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with others'. Of course, many people are single and very happy. That's fine, but those who are not in a satifactory relationship and want to be are vulnerable to Valentine's Day Distress (VDD). Observing loving and romantic posts on Facebook about others might make those without a satisfactory love life pretty depressed. If you are mindful of this tendency hopefully you can better prepare youself for the emotional reactions that can likely unfold. Or, you can avoid Facebook and social media in general.

Being aware of the impact of social comparison theory on your moods may not make everything better in your life but it might take much of the sting away. And that’s worth plenty!

Check out my web page at www.scu.edu/tplante and follow me on Twitter @ThomasPlante

Copyright 2014, Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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