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Envious of a Friend? What They Have Won’t Make You Happy

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

Meet The Team >

Emily, Abigail, and Hannah were sitting together at lunch. The end of the shool year was just a few weeks away, so the three high school friends were discussing their summer plans.

            “We’re going on a cruise to Alaska,” said Emily, flipping her hair over her shoulder. “My mom found this amazing cruise line that comes with a million pools and Jacuzzis onboard, plus a movie theater and a racetrack on the roof. Plus, we each get our own butler. Crazy, right?”

            “We went to Alaska when I was little,” said Abigail, opening her lunch. She took a bite of sushi. “It was really nice, but it’s cold. I’d rather be on the beach! We’re going to Cancun like we always do…”

Only Hannah was silent. While money wasn’t exactly tight in her family, they didn’t have too much extra, either. Her parents were newly divorced and she and her siblings weren’t expecting to go anywhere this summer—let alone Alaska or Cancun. The furthest she would get out of the house this summer was probably the roller-skating rink, she thought glumly. Of course, she didn’t share this with her friends—she just listened while pretending she was happy for them. But for a few moments, she wished she was Emily or Abigail. Both of them had families that were loaded. And they were both gorgeous, too.

If you’re like most teens, you probably get jealous or envious of your friends at one time or another. Whether it’s their looks, money, brains, romantic partners, or families, there are so many things we wish we could have.

And social media makes it even worse.

Social Media and Envy

Social media can contrbute to envy and depression. One recent study, aptly titled “The grass is always greener on my Friends’ profiles,” asked two groups of participants to go on Facebook for 15 minutes. One group surfed their News Feed, while the other group browsed through National Geographic’s page. Those who browsed through their friends’ posts reported lower self-esteem and higher depression levels than the group who didn’t (Alfasi, 2019).

It also exacerbates your unhappiness. Teens who are already depressed are more likely to be envious of others on Facebook, in contrast to adolescents who are generally happy. This is because the former group is already feeling down on themselves (Appel, 2015).

The reasoning is clear: seeing carefully filtered and curated “highlight reels” of other people’s glamour, success, money or looks makes us feel worse about ourselves. This effect is worse when we’re using Facebook passively – to lurk on other people’s profiles (what researchers dub “surveillance use”) – versus actively posting and sharing on our own profile pages.

Money, Looks, and Brains Won’t Make You Happier

We have a secret to share. It’s life-changing. We’re sure you’ve heard it a million times, but we’ll say it anyway:

Money doesn’t buy happiness.

Research proves it.

“Wealth is like health,” says Dr. David G. Myers, a happiness expert who wrote The Pursuit of Happiness: What Makes a Person Happy–and Why. “Although its utter absence breeds misery, having it is no guarantee of happiness. Once your real needs are met, having more provides diminishing emotional dividends.”

In other words, just like you’re probably not gloating over your good health every day, and feeling lucky that you can see and hear, rich folks don’t get happier over their bank accounts or expensive possessions. To them, it’s just their life. It’s normal. Even if you become as rich as them, you might enjoy an increase in happiness for a short time, but you would soon adapt to your new life.

If you’re still having a hard time imagining that your wealthy friends aren’t necessarily happier, think of yourself and all the things you have. A roof over your head? Lots of teens in Africa don’t. A shirt on your back? Can’t say the same for all high-schoolers around the world. At least one pair of shoes? Some walk barefoot.

Did the above run-through make you feel at all happier? Maybe just for a few seconds. See what we mean? Even though you may be considered rich to some people, that doesn’t make you feel happier. It just shows you that long-lasting happiness doesn’t have anything to do with your income or possessions.

And while we’re on the topic, we’ll add that having a higher IQ doesn’t correlate with general life satisfaction or wellbeing, either (Veenhoven, 2012). That’s good news for many teens who struggle in school.

Nor does being more pretty or handsome. Contrary to what you think, a beautiful body doesn’t make you feel happier. Don’t believe us? Ask a model. In “Happiness and despair on the catwalk,” a group of researchers decided to approach the top of the beauty totem pole: runway models. In surveying 56 fashion models in London, they found that the models reported lower levels of wellbeing and greater mental health issues than the non-model control group.

What to Do When You’re Envious of a Friend

So when you find the green-eyed monster rearing its ugly head in your chest, try to think about the above. Consider the fact that just like you have your own struggles and issues, your friends do too—no matter how rich or good-looking they are. Try to remember that when you see those smiles and suntans on Facebook. They’re not indicative of any higher level of happiness.

However, you can also take some action steps when it comes to exposing yourself to these envy triggers in the first place.

First, try to limit your time spent online. Not only will it help reduce your envy, you’ll also feel happier. In a survey of over a thousand Americans, Experience Magazine (a digital publication from Northeastern University in Chicago) found that many social media users find it helpful to simply go offline when they’re fed up with social media. Forty percent get away from their device.

Another 23% actually take the step of unfollowing or unfriending someone when they feel they’re being too boastful. And 18% of users engage in meditation or reflection to help center themselves.

The Child Mind Institute also has some suggestions. One tip they give is to turn off notifications for all social media sites. You’ll be so much more relaxed when you don’t hear a beep or see a flashing light each time someone posts something.  Another strategy: limit your phone use before bed. The bright light of an electronic device can keep you awake even when you’re trying to go to sleep. The combination of lack of sleep and heavy social media use can contribute to mental health issues. 

What Makes You Happy?

To sum up, happiness is generally not correlated with money, brains, or looks. Interestingly enough, those are the things that are hard to control, anyway. Brains and looks? We’re born with them. Money? While you can work on hustling when you get older, there’s only so much money you can try to make while you’re still in high school. And you can’t control your parents’ income.

However, happiness is correlated with a bunch of other things. For example: close relationships. Participating in lots of positive, pleasurable experiences throughout the week (which you can schedule for yourself!). Accomplishing tasks. Exercising. Sleeping well. Engaging yourself in challenging but rewarding work.

It’s a long list, which means there are lots of options to choose from if you’re having trouble staying happy. At mental health treatment centers for depression, therapists teach teens how to prioritize the above factors in order to make themselves happier. For most of these, we can put in the effort to get results.

Which means happiness is within our control.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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