The Common Denominator of Happiness

It's less about Instagram likes and more about liking what you already have.

Posted Mar 07, 2018

A sweet aroma filled the ice cream shop in Lower Manhattan’s Chinatown. Two college students, both in New York City for summer internships, met there to catch a taste of its famed exotic flavors while they caught up on each other’s lives. The first student perused the options and then selected one scoop that was bright pink and another of beautiful green. “What flavors are those?” her friend asked with wonder. “I don’t know, I just picked them because of their colors.” The first student then scoped out the room for a table with good lighting. “I’m gonna get a perfect shot for my Instagram,” she said. She snapped picture after picture until her culinary masterpiece started to melt. With ice cream dribbling down her hand, she began to look around the room once more. This time it was for a trash can. What good is an ice cream cone on a hot summer day if it’s no longer Instagram-worthy?

Documenting their lives on social media has become, for many, a necessary component of any worthwhile experience. As one of my students describes it, “Social events are often so consumed by taking pictures that that is what the substance of the experience becomes. Taking pictures is the experience.” Across social media platforms, students carefully monitor what they post and how it will be perceived.

Another of my students explained it in these terms:

Creative Vix, CC0 License
Source: Creative Vix, CC0 License

“My friends are constantly checking their Instagrams to see how many likes they received on their latest post. They are comparing the number of likes they get to the number of likes others get, along with the number of followers they have and the number of comments they receive. When we change our profile pictures on Facebook, we are sure not to do so too late at night or too early in the morning because we are concerned about maximizing the number of likes we can get. And the ‘acceptable’ number has increased this year; it is pretty much embarrassing to get less than sixty likes on a profile picture, and one hundred is desired.”

Many studies have found a relationship between social media use and unhappiness: the more time people spend on it, the less happy they tend to be. But why? What is it about Facebook, Instagram, or any other social media platform that could damage well-being?

Psychologists have known for a long time that one of the fundamental barriers to happiness is social comparison. It’s hard to be happy if we are constantly wondering how our experiences are measuring up to those around us.

Consider the following formula:

Happiness = What We Have/What We Want

Every time we log onto social media and feel envious about what others are doing, who they are with, or what they have, we are inflating the denominator of the happiness formula (what we want), which ultimately drives down our happiness.

Pixabay, CC0 License
Source: Pixabay, CC0 License

To make matters worse, the amount of time people spend on social media is also driving down the amount of time they spend interacting with actual people. So now we have a double-edged sword: social media is enabling one of the biggest barriers to happiness (social comparison), and it is inhibiting one of the biggest contributors to happiness (authentic social connection).

Even though it may feel as if social comparison is unavoidable given the way we consume media today, there are strategies for combating this tendency that don’t involve giving up Facebook altogether. Part of what makes the happiest people impervious to social comparison’s toxic effects is where they place their attention when they encounter someone who seems better off. Instead of wallowing in FOMO (fear of missing out), they shift their focus away from what they wish they had and focus instead on what they do have.

Carl Attard, CC0 License
Source: Carl Attard, CC0 License

Numerous studies have found that people who spend just a few minutes per week practicing gratitude by focusing on the good things in their lives (what they have) tend to be the happiest and most satisfied. While social comparison is all about the denominator because it directs our attention to what we want, gratitude is all about the numerator because it directs our attention to what we have.

When we put ourselves in the habit of calling to mind positive moments from the day—the great lunch we had with a friend, a funny joke we recently heard, or an upcoming trip we are excited about—it becomes easier over time to take a more positive mindset during other, more difficult moments of our day. We also become more aware of good things as they happen throughout the day because we are well practiced at identifying them.

Every so often people will ask me, based on my review of the research, what the common denominator among the happiest people is. They usually expect me to respond by listing off things like wealth, education, or accomplishments. But none of those things predict happiness very well, especially considering how quickly we adapt to them. Instead I tell them that the common denominator of happiness has a lot to do with the denominator itself (of the happiness formula). The happiest people craft lives that ensure that what they want doesn’t get larger than what they have. It’s not that they keep their wants or expectations needlessly low, but they do keep them realistic and they revise them when necessary. And instead of increasing the numerator by posting their every move on social media to maximize the number of likes they’ll get, they call attention to what they have with the regular practice of gratitude. The next time you feel the urge to scroll through Facebook, take a few minutes instead to list off a few good things that happened during the past week. The next time you start comparing yourself to others who seem more talented or more accomplished than you, redirect your attention instead to your own strengths, and opportunities you may have to build on them. And the next time you find yourself at an ice cream shop scrambling to get the perfect shot for your Instagram, focus instead on how much you are enjoying spending time with your friend. In all cases, you’ll be keeping your denominator low and your numerator high.


Excerpted from the WHEN LIKES AREN’T ENOUGH: A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness by Tim Bono PhD. Copyright © 2018 by Tim Bono PhD. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Life & Style. All rights reserved.