When I was 16, I got paid £3.33 an hour in my first job. And it felt great. I was the envy of my friends at school – they all got paid at least 10p an hour less. I could save up for computer games quicker. I was rich… RICH!

I mean… obviously I wasn’t objectively rich. But I did feel pretty good about myself. I was comparing myself to those in my frame of reference – my friends – and coming out on top. I could have aspired to more, but my social network (an ‘IRL’ social network, way before Facebook) set my expectations and ideas around what I could and should be aspiring to. For better or for worse, earning more than them made me feel good about myself. They were my reference group, and I was top dog.

The idea that those around us act as a motivator for our goals is nothing new. The phrase ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ reflects this. It’s thought that the phrase comes from the title of a comic strip from The New York World, that told the long-standing struggle of a family to match the lifestyle of their neighbours, who were often discussed but never seen. In this example, the neighbours act as the reference group.

The economist Juliet Schor refers to these reference groups in her article, ‘Why Americans want so much more than they need.’ She points out that in the distant past, our reference groups were small and neighbourhood-based. We could only compare ourselves to others in our physical proximity, such as our own village or group of streets.

As urbanisation increased, we began to mix more with people from different classes – at work, and in the street – making the lives of others more visible to everyone, and thus increasing our reference groups, and levels of desire. Even then, though, our frame of reference would likely be mostly influenced by our neighbours, family, co-workers and boss.

In the last century, our reference groups exploded as a result of our exposure to media – television, and more recently, social media. Now we live with instant and pervasive access to a vast digital reference group, who may be living a life vastly different to our own. They can be in a different country, culture, context that is only vaguely comparable to each other, or have a level of privilege that we don’t. And not only that, but the way that social media works means that their life can be edited to a level of unattainable perfection, passed off as their daily reality.

An explosion of comparison

Schor uses the phrase ‘competitive consumption’ to outline the phenomena of buying things because of social pressures, but the implications for networked digital reference groups go much further than what we buy. Nowadays, we can compare our homes, our clothes, our cars, our lifestyles, but also our experiences, our bodies, our sexiness, and our happiness to millions of people without even leaving our home. Rather than just ‘competitive consumption’, networked reference groups have in fact amplified our level of competitiveness and comparison in all aspects of our life. And this very connectedness increases our awareness of what we don’t have, bringing it into our hands and into our homes, leaving a trail of warped aspirations and increased dissatisfaction as it goes.

Anecdotally, many of us can identify with social media making us feel frustrated and discontented. Stories about this appear in the press from time to time, discussing Instagram’s effect on mental health, for example. But research backs up the ‘why’ behind it: past a point where our needs are covered, it’s actually our level of aspiration that affects our level of happiness, rather than what we actually have. In other words – we won’t become automatically happier if we become richer, fitter or more successful; we will only become happier if we eventually stop wanting even more. 

Admittedly, another way to look at this issue would be to argue in favour of aspiration as a driving factor in our progress – as something that results in us setting goals that take us forward. That’s true, but there are two things to take into account here: 1) the goals need to be set mindfully, with intention, and regularly reassessed and 2) they need to be achievable, because goals that are unrealistic result in negative feelings of stress and anxiety without the pay-off of a reward. But as experiences in the digital world can so easily lead us from one place to another in just a few clicks, if we aren’t careful about the media we are consuming, we can quickly get caught up in a space that doesn’t work for us.

So what can we do about it? 

Mindful browsing

One way is to be more conscious about the digital reference group we want to create. Although we need to be able to accept that some people will have more than us in life, it’s not healthy for us to be bombarded with things that are out of our reach on a regular basis. Taking some steps to reduce the number of unreachable aspirational cues around us will never completely eliminate them from our lives, but it might be able to reduce them to a level that feels like less of a daily onslaught. And if we take the time to develop a digital world that actually helps us to create the life we want to create in a way that is realistic, attainable and supportive; it can be an asset.

I’ve recently given my own digital space a tidy up. For me, that meant taking stock of the app that I use most – Instagram – and supplementing it with other browsable content that works better for me, such as on Reddit. This has meant steering away from Instagram’s suggestions for me, and choosing my own direction instead. 

For this, I took out a pen and paper, and thought about the things I’d like to nurture in my life, and how to support that with my digital stimuli. That’s lead to me following accounts and groups talking about topics like minimalism, degrowth, and anti-work; yoga accounts focused on body positivity rather than ‘wow’ photos; and local cultural and community ventures. For me, this has removed an extended and unproductive reference group from my life, and replaced it with a range of digital content that sets my mind off in a very different direction when I come across it. 

So – what’s the digital world that can support your real life?