The illusion of life before and after
We have an obsession with ‘before and after’ pictures.
Whether it’s a friend who lost 60 pounds, a celebrity’s 10-year challenge on Instagram or our neighbor’s home extreme makeover, we can’t resist a transformation. We identify with the original problem and feel inspired by how things turned out.
That’s why before-and-afters are so captivating — they provide an emotional reward to both protagonists and spectators. That illusion comes at a high price though: we idealize the improvement but don’t appreciate the journey.
So, when do we cross the line between admiration and frustration?
The desire to live someone else’s life seeds envy — we suffer when others experience good fortune.
Envy is a powerful emotion. It can either motivate us or make us resentful.
We Can’t Resist Comparing to Others
“Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.”
— René Girard
Human desire is not a linear process as often thought.
René Girard’s mimetic theory began with an understanding of desire and blossomed into a grand theory of human relations.
We don’t autonomously desire an object; we desire according to the desire of the other, according to the French literary theorist and philosopher. We rely on mediators or models to help us understand who and what to desire.
Girard based his theory on the insights of great novelists such as Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, and Proust. Imitative desire can rapidly turn into envy — the ‘model’ can quickly become a rival who competes with us for the same object.
As Girard explains, “With freedom comes risk and uncertainty: humans don’t know in advance what to choose, so they look to others for cues. People can desire anything, as long as other people seem to desire it, too.”
Social Media is a perfect example of that theory — no wonder it turned the ‘before and after’ pictures into a cult.
As Geoff Shullenberger wrote on this essay, social media platforms “are machines for producing desire.” We’re all always competing for attention — in the battle for likes, anyone is your potential rival.
The pressure to compare ourselves to others — to be as good or better than them — is driven by envy. And the DNA of social media is designed around this emotion.
As venture capitalist and entrepreneur Peter Thiel said, “Social media proved to be more important than it looked because it’s about our (human) nature.”
Popularity drives adoption. We learn by observing others, as many social cognitive theories explain — as more people like a post, more people will like it too.
That’s why before-and-afters are so successful — they give us proof that certain outcomes are within our reach.
The Downside of Comparing Our Lives
Envy is rooted in trying to be like someone else rather than on improving who we are — it’s externally-focused, not intrinsically-driven. When we are continually comparing to others, envy ends poisoning our lives as I wrote here.
In a surprising move, WW — formerly, Weight Watchers — decided to ban the before-and-after pictures from its ad campaigns. As Gary Foster, WW’s chief scientific officer, explains, “What consumers have told us over the last three years is that it really isn’t about a clear beginning and a clear end. It’s about progress.”
The black-or-white approach is deceiving — we buy the illusion of the outcome, but underestimate the journey.
Alexis Conason, a clinical psychologist who specializes in overeating disorders, believes the comparison approach is not a positive thing. Not only it promotes extreme habits such as a dieting culture, but makes us focus on the end result — we oversimplify the time and effort needed.
She thinks these images are flawed because they come from a place of self-hatred — we hate our ‘before’ and idealize our ‘after.’ Changing our behavior is not a linear journey. Demonizing our ‘before-self’ can hinder long-term success — if a mistake unravels some of our progress, we hate ourselves.
Comparing to others is deceiving — we see what’s right with others and what’s wrong with ourselves. Like Lana Wilder said, “You’re either self-appreciating or self-depreciating. There is no middle.”
We are all capable of achieving great transformations in our lives. But, we should focus on adopting healthier lifestyles, not on looking perfect. Building meaningful habits requires time, effort, and commitment — there are no shortcuts.
This Instagram influencer sums it up pretty well — with a touch of irony. “This ‘booty transformation’ took exactly 20 seconds. Don’t believe everything you see on social media my friends,” Rini Frey wrote.
So, does envy motivate or inhibit good behavior?
Envy Levels People Up or Down
Bertrand Russell wrote about the envious person, “he deprives others of their advantages, which to him is as desirable as it would be to secure the same advantages himself.”
We tend to think of envy as a destructive emotion. However, as I wrote here, it’s our reaction what can make an emotion constructive or destructive.
Emotions are both a signal and a motivator — they provide us with instant information about potential threats or opportunities. Fear alert us of possible attacks; happiness motivates us to do more. So, what about envy?
Various studies have shown that envy can both harm or motivates us — it can be either malicious or benign. Envy can be fueled by admiration toward others or the desire to ‘destroy’ them.
“When we admire someone, we do so from a distance. When we envy someone, we picture ourselves in their place,” Maria Konnikova writes in this beautiful New Yorker piece.
Benign and malicious envy are not two different emotions but two sides of the same coin — the painful experience is the same. We must learn to differentiate one from the other if we want to use envy as motivation, not to harm ourselves or others.
When we envy someone because of how much weight s/he lost, but believe that a person doesn’t deserve the advantage s/he has compared to us, our envy becomes malicious.
As the authors of this study explain, “Benign envy exists if the advantage of the other person is deserved, and motivates people to attain a coveted good or position for themselves. This more motivating type of envy makes people pay an envy premium for the products that elicited their envy.”
Benign envy leads to a moving-up motivation — it can help you improve your position. Malicious envy is about pulling-down another person — you want to damage the superior other.
We can be inspired by hope and motivated by envy, as this study suggests.
Envy with a Purpose
At the end of the day, with envy — as it happens with most things in life — the why matters more than the what.
If you look at before-and-after pictures and get inspired, that’s fine. If you post a picture of your transformation because you want to celebrate an accomplishment, good for you.
The problem is when you are either trying to seed envy (“look I’m smarter/ nicer looking/ more successful than you folks”) or when, instead of being inspired by others, their achievements fuel self-hatred.
Envy can act as a wake-up call or a realization — if that person did it, I can too. However, most of the times, envy is extrinsically-driven — we try to change from the outside. But that’s not the most effective way to motivate ourselves.
Motivation 3.0, Daniel Pink’s model for driving behavior, is built on the notion of intrinsic needs — we are driven to do something because it is interesting, challenging and absorbing. This approach focuses on three elements: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.
As Pink explains, our brains are wired to self-direct. We don’t want others telling us how to do things — autonomy is about feeling in control over our actions. Mastery is the desire to constantly improve our abilities. Purpose helps us focus on the bigger picture — it’s about why we want to change.
External motivation is about imitating or pleasing other people. Intrinsic motivation is about doing what feels right to us, not to others.
- Tread carefully: Avoid the comparison trap. Admiration and envy can seem like opposites: admiration inspires us, while envy drags us down.
- Compare mindfully: You don’t need to bring others down to feel good. You don’t need to feel bad either because someone else’s body, job, or kitchen seems better than yours. Using others as a benchmark is helpful only if you avoid feeding your inner-critic.
- Focus on the journey: The problem with the before-and-after illusion is that we, not only, oversimplify the effort but also forget to enjoy the journey. Effective behavioral change happens one step-a-time. Don’t expect it to be linear either. Also, enjoying the ride boosts our confidence — appreciating our progress builds momentum.
- Healthy admiration is okay: Envy researchers suggest that complementing the person you ‘envy,’ can be beneficial to you. Appreciate what you like about that person. Turning others into a role model can be inspirational when you focus on what ‘you can become’ rather than on what ‘you are not.’
- Follow your voice: Social media has many upsides but has also amplified social pressure. Don’t define your goals based on what others are pursuing. Start by choosing what you want to do first and, only then, look for external inspiration.
The illusion of the before-and-after polarizes our views — we turn our past into evil. Who we are is not just about how we act or look today, but a consequence of all our previous experiences and decisions. Your ‘before’ is the foundation to continue growing; don’t feel embarrassed about your past.
Envy can be a source of inspiration, but it shouldn’t drive your choices. Focus on designing and desiring your own life, not on pursuing what others desired first.