Here's the real reason why drooling over your friends' vacation photos at work is a terrible idea

Photo: Jasper Juinen/Getty Images.

Work is hard and Instagram is easy.

So if you need a break at the office today, it makes sense that you’d whip out your phone and start scrolling through the last batch of #summer2016vacay pics.

This is probably a bad idea. Not solely because it will look unprofessional when your boss walks by — those teeny bikini photos can make you feel bad about yourself, and distract you from the work at hand.

A recent New York Times article by psychologist Lisa Damour highlights the problem with teenage girls who browse Instagram while doing their homework — and the same idea might easily apply to adults at work.

As Damour points out, looking at Instagram shots of friends with seemingly perfect beach bodies can cause young women to feel insecure about their own physiques, which in turn can make it hard to concentrate on anything else.

Damour points to a 1998 study that found undergrad women performed worse on a maths test when they were asked to wear swimsuits than when they were asked to wear sweaters. For undergrad men, on the other hand, their performance didn’t seem to depend on what they were wearing.

In the years following the original swimsuit study, other research found that one reason why women’s cognitive performance seems to suffer when they start focusing on the way they look is that it depletes their attentional resources. The authors of one 2006 study say that feeling objectified in professional or academic situations — whether it’s a job interview or an exam — can hurt women’s performance.

Beyond physical comparisons, it can be frustrating for men and women to look at vacation photos in which people seem so darn delighted to be alive. But comparing yourself to other people can be tricky business. Science suggests that people can seem a lot happier and less troubled than they really are.

A study published in 2011 found that university first-years underestimated the number of negative emotional experiences (like having a fight or feeling homesick) and overestimated the number of positive emotional experiences (like going to a fun party or hanging out with friends) their peers had recently gone through.

As a Slate article pointed out right after the study was published, our social media experiences might only exacerbate this phenomenon. When all your friends are posting photos of their exotic summer vacations, it seems reasonable to assume that they’re having a whole lot more fun than you are.

But when it comes to social media — and even IRL interactions — you’re probably only seeing a curated version of everyone else’s lives. Keep that in mind the next time you feel alone in your struggles — chances other that other people have been there too, and might even be able to provide some guidance.

Of course, the quick fix to these issues might be to simply stop looking at social media while you’re doing important work. If you need a break, it’s better to take a walk around the block or even get started on a work project that really interests you.

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