Why Your Happiness Shouldn’t Depend On Others
It is normal to care about the opinions of others. There is certainly variation in how much we value what others think of us, but it is safe to say that most people desire the acceptance of those around us. This notion is captured in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: After our basic physiological and safety needs are met, our focus turns to the need for a sense of belonging and connection, which causes us to long for warm relations with others in general (Maslow, 1943). After that is fulfilled, people tend to desire self-esteem, status, and recognition (Maslow, 1943). According to Maslow, esteem needs are comprised of the desire for achievement and the desire for acknowledgement and appreciation from others (Maslow, 1943). Still, it is important to ensure that we do not determine our happiness and self-worth based on others’ approval or how we measure up against others, for this can be harmful.
The Desire for Approval
Apart from fulfilling our psychological needs, approval from others can act as a form of feedback about how our behaviour is being perceived (Klich & Feldman, 1992). Having a high need for approval can be a double-edged sword. Children with a higher need for approval experienced enhanced self-worth when they received social approval, but experienced diminished self-worth when they faced social disapproval (Rudolph et al., 2005). These results highlight the impact social approval and disapproval can have on well-being.
The desire for approval can also influence our behaviour. Deutsch & Lamberti (1986) conducted a study that examined how social reinforcement affected individuals’ willingness to help a confederate who had dropped their books. Upon completion of a questionnaire, only some participants were rewarded with an expression of gratitude, while others were not (Deutsch & Lamberti, 1986). Their differences in need for approval were also measured (Deutsch & Lamberti, 1986). When they were socially rewarded, individuals high in need for approval were more likely to help the confederate than if they had not been socially rewarded, while those with lower need for approval were unaffected by the social reinforcement (Deutsch & Lamberti, 1986). These studies demonstrate that the feelings and behaviour of individuals with a higher need for approval may be more easily affected by the responses of others.
What Does a Higher Need for Approval Signify?
Although the desire for approval is somewhat universal, how important this is to each person can vary. Naturally, this may lead us to wonder about characteristics that are associated with a higher need for approval, and how having a higher need for approval may affect us. Karasar and Baytemir carried out study among a sample of college students that helps to address these questions (2018). The results suggest that the need for social approval is inversely related to happiness, which means that individuals who are more concerned about others’ judgments tend to be less happy (Karasar & Baytemir, 2018). Results suggested that social anxiety may explain the relationship between the need for social approval and happiness levels (Karasar & Baytemir, 2018). These findings are in line with that of Martin (1984), who found that the scores on the Martin-Larsen Approval Motivation Scale—in which higher scores represent a higher need for social approval—was inversely related to measures of self-esteem.
Making Social Comparisons
Another way in which people may evaluate their self-worth based on others is when making social comparisons—comparing oneself to one or more other people, such as by identifying similarities or differences (Wood, 1996). Such thoughts may be unconscious (Wood, 1996). Social comparison theory posits that our perceptions of how we are doing compared to others contributes to how we perceive ourselves, and that negative social comparisons are often harmful to our self-concepts (Festinger, 1954, as cited in de Vries & Kuhne, 2015). These comparisons may be used to ascertain whether we are normal compared to our peers, as well as to determine our status in relation to them (Richins, 1992). Negative social comparisons are made when we feel like others are doing better than we are (de Vries & Kuhne, 2015).
It is not necessarily true that negative social comparison always makes us less happy, as studies show that happiness can diminish some of the negative effects of social comparison. De Vries and Kuhne (2015) found that Facebook use was associated with more negative social comparison, and negative social comparison was negatively associated with evaluations of oneself as socially adept and physically attractive. Interestingly, the link between Facebook use and negative social comparison was weaker among happier individuals (de Vries & Kuhne, 2015). Additionally, in two studies by Lyubomirsky and Ross which administered questionnaires about one’s self-perceived competence before and after receiving feedback about one’s performance, self-rated unhappy individuals’ perceptions of their abilities were affected both by comparisons with peers who performed better and worse, while self-rated happy individuals’ perceptions on their abilities were only affected by comparison with peers who performed worse (1997). This shows that although social comparison has the potential to affect our self-concept and well-being, our preexisting happiness levels can buffer the impact.
Does Social Media Use Encourage Social Comparison?
Social media platforms definitely provide opportunities for social comparison. A study showed that blogs, Instagram and LinkedIn positively predict social comparison, and in turn, social comparison negatively predicts relative happiness, which refers to one’s evaluation of one’s life based on social comparison (Chae, 2018). However, is this always the case?
The answer may be more complicated than expected. In 2016, a study was conducted to explore connections between loneliness and various Instagram activities (Yang, 2016). It was found that Instagram browsing was associated with lower loneliness (Yang, 2016). Instagram interaction was also positively related to lower loneliness for users with a low tendency to compare themselves to others (Yang, 2016). Previous research has also indicated that using social media to engage with others is related to better well-being, suggesting either that connecting with others online is beneficial for our well-being or that less lonely individuals are more likely to interact with others online (Ryan & Xenos, 2011). On the other hand, Instagram broadcasting—the sharing of information with a general audience rather than specific individuals—was related to higher loneliness (Yang, 2016). Evidently, different patterns of social media use, as well as differences between individuals, contribute to the impact social media use has on us regarding social comparison.
Another study was conducted to investigate the relationships between different types of social media use—socializing, information seeking, and self-status seeking—and body image (Lee et al., 2014). Self-status seeking refers to the use of social media to obtain and sustain a high social status (Lee et al., 2014). This study also sought to examine whether there are differences between individuals in the United States, which is considered an individualist country, and Korea, which is considered a more collectivist country in which individuals are influenced by social norms and obligations to a greater degree (Lee et al., 2014). As one may expect, body image was found to influence well-being through self-esteem (Lee et al., 2014).
The findings showed several similarities between the sample of Americans and the sample of Koreans. Of these, a remarkable finding was that seeking information regarding body image on social media was associated with a lower satisfaction with one’s body for both Koreans and Americans (Lee et al., 2014). One difference is that social media use for self-status seeking was unrelated to body image for Americans but was linked to a more positive body image in Korea (Lee et al., 2014).
Materialism and Social Comparison
You may have heard of the saying: “Buy experiences, not things.” One reason behind this expression may be that experiential purchases may be less subject to social comparison than material ones. For those more concerned about material possessions, these are often crucial in defining the self (Belk, 1985). This makes us more likely to compare our status with that of others based on material possessions (Richins, 1992). Meanwhile, individuals report being less likely to compare experiential purchases with that of others (Howell & Hill, 2008). The happiness that comes with experiential purchases may be less easily shaken by others’ opinions as it may stem from a sense of meaning, in contrast to that happiness associated with material purchases. In light of this, it is not surprising that being too concerned with material possessions can result in unhappiness (Wang et al., 2017).
How Can We Prioritise Our Happiness Over Others’ Opinions?
Desiring others’ approval is not always bad—it may encourage us to think about others’ needs or consider whether our behaviours are socially appropriate. However, it is important to remember that what others think of us does not define who we are.
Although it is normal to desire approval to some extent, basing our self-worth largely on the opinions of others is likely to negatively impact our well-being. As we are not in control with what others think, basing our happiness on others’ perceptions of us could lead to fluctuating happiness levels. Moreover, studies show that authenticity positively predicts subjective happiness and life satisfaction (Boyraz et al., 2014; Saricam, 2015). With this in mind, it is likely that going along with what others seem to value may not truly make us happy.
How then can we overcome the need for social approval or the urge to compare ourselves to others when these are not beneficial? What makes each person happy can differ, and we may be affected differently by the desire for approval and social comparison. Hence, these are some questions to guide you in cultivating habits that work for you:
- What values do you personally think are important? Identifying values that are personally important is the first step to setting self-concordant goals, which is associated with goal progress and an increase in positive emotions over time (Koestner et al., 2002). Since values are about our own behaviour, and not how we compare to those around us, happiness that stems from living a life guided by your values is less vulnerable to circumstances out of our control. Being in touch with your values can also help you to make decisions you are comfortable with, regardless of how others react to them.
- How are you using social media, and how does it make you feel? The abovementioned studies show that social media use can lead to a decrease in well-being—especially if we are making negative evaluations about ourselves, whether consciously or unconsciously. However, social media can also make us less lonely. With our different personality traits and social media habits, it can be difficult to predict how social media will affect our well-being. Knowing about the trends associated with social media use and well-being and taking the time to notice how you feel after social media activity can empower you to make better-informed decisions about your social media habits.
- What kind of experiences make you feel fulfilled? Having read about the benefits of investing in experiential purchases, perhaps you can think about events that still make you smile when you look back on them, or that you would one day like to experience. This could take many forms, such as volunteering your time and money for a cause you believe in, going to a museum, or purchasing a gym membership.
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