After two years of being unable to travel due to restrictive Covid quarantine policies in Hong Kong, I finally ventured out for a long overdue work trip. My trip was focused on the Middle East, visiting our hotels in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Dubai, Doha, Istanbul and Cairo. Then I ended up extending the trip and also visiting a few locations in Europe including Milan, Barcelona and Madrid.
As I often do when I travel, I posted the highlights on social media. If you follow me on Instagram, you might have seen me checking in to beautiful Mandarin Oriental hotel rooms, enjoying delicious Middle Eastern delicacies, or going out on some adventure on the weekend such as wake surfing in Abu Dhabi, a parkour lesson in Dubai, or having drinks with friends in Milan. It was an incredible trip and it “played well” on social media.
If the purpose of these posts is to get the envy and admiration of my friends and followers, I would say they achieved their goal. Most of my posts received a lot of likes and comments from friends saying things like, “wow, I’m so jealous,” “living the dream,” or “rough life, it doesn’t look like you are working too hard.”
But like most things on social media, my posts only showed the “highlight reel.” They don’t reflect the complete reality of the trip. I was working hard, for example, having busy days of meetings, and then having to catch up on phone calls in the evenings and being completely buried in emails on the weekend.
Not a peep about any of this went onto my Instagram channel. There was also no post about the sadness and loneliness experienced by being away from my family for two months, the extreme frustration of multiple canceled flights that almost brought me to tears at one point, or the monotony of my mandatory seven-day quarantine upon returning home. These, too, are the reality of my trip, they just don’t appear in my highlight reel.
The highlight-reel effect causes problems when we try to compare ourselves to others based on what we see on social media. For example, we compare our actual appearance to the carefully curated and often edited photos of others. We compare the total emotional content of our own lives to the positivity we see expressed through our friends’ feeds. And we compare the good, bad and ugly of our quality of life, to the “best of the best” highlights that are shared by others.
It can leave us feeling that we don’t measure up, we aren’t as successful as we should be, or that our quality of life is not good enough. But none of these comparisons are based on reality.
There are a few things we can do to avoid the trap of the highlight-reel effect.
1. Be aware that social media paints a very exaggerated and rosy picture of almost everyone. Don’t conflate it with reality.
2. For your close friends, try to have a conversation and listen for the REAL stories about their life—what’s been happening in between the highlights on social media.
3. Limit the amount of time you spend scrolling other people’s feeds. Spending too much time as a voyeur into other people’s lives can distract you from creating your own incredible life. Spend more time creating your own highlights and worry less about what others are doing.
To be clear, my trip was amazing. And I’m very grateful for the opportunities I have had to travel the world and experience so many different things. But as good as my trip was, it was nowhere near as good as it looked on Instagram.
JEREMY MCCARTHY is the group director of spa for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. He is the author of The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing.