So far, 2020 has been a never-ending cycle of bad headlines and distressing news articles, the next arriving before you’ve even had a chance to process the one before it. Whether it’s an alert about another instance of police violence, an update on spiking cases of COVID-19, or the ceaseless tumult of presidential politics, there’s been no escaping the crushing feeling that things are really bad, and only getting worse.
Then you start scrolling through Facebook and Instagram. Sure, there’s the usual mix of uninformed relatives and people you went to high school with posting about their right not to wear masks and how the “alleged pandemic” is not as bad as “the media” (hi!) makes it out to be.
Of course those posts are maddening, but what about the ones sharing good news, like a job promotion, an engagement, or buying a new home? Given that we’re in the midst of particularly trying times, is letting people know about your successes and wins in poor taste? Here’s what to know.
If you were fortunate enough not to have been raised in a culture or religious tradition where guilt is baked into everything you do, don’t do, or even think about doing or not doing, this may be less of an issue for you. But even if that’s the case, living in a time rife with such a depressingly consistent loss of life is wearing, and causing some people to experience a version of survivor guilt. This is something that Dr. Heidi Brooks, a senior lecturer in organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, has been hearing a lot about lately.
“We hope that, in life and work in general, people are having successes and able to thrive, and we hope the same during the pandemic,” says Brooks, who specializes in “everyday leadership”—the everyday micro-moments of impact that shape our lived experiences. “Yet it’s very clear that not everyone is having success or thriving; that more of a survival mindset is true for many people.”
But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to stop celebrating completely. According to Brooks, we can differentiate the social celebration of an achievement from the individual acknowledgement. “I think it’s really worth thinking about what’s happening for the individual, because there’s a survivor guilt tension of ‘Is it OK that I’m OK?’ when we know that other people are not OK because of the pandemic, questions about employment and housing, and questions about political tension [and] racial justice,” she tells us.
Given that we’re living in a pandemic, the ways we celebrate or acknowledge the good news in our lives now likely (considering the need for social distancing) primarily takes place over social media. Or at least, that’s the part that other people see as they scroll through their feeds, and which they may find upsetting. But, as Brooks points out, even the way we interact with people over social media has changed this year.
“There’s an expected normative equivalency that if I’ve celebrated you before, you will now celebrate me,” she explains. “I got a new job, but you just lost yours, but you will celebrate mine anyway. It’s a little bit complicated to negotiate right now.”
And as fundamentally social beings, we at least partly make sense of the world through comparison and connection to others. “The reason that we want people to know about our success is that we care about being acknowledged and having some social affirmation and experience of important events,” Brooks says.
With so much going on, there are plenty of reasons for us to be aware of the impact of our actions on others, and to be both more conscientious and more socially conscious as a result. “Yet, having yourself suffer because other people are suffering is not necessarily healthy, warranted, or a move with more integrity,” Brooks explains. “‘Celebration’ might not be the word, but acknowledgement and encouragement and allowing yourself to thrive might be the way to talk about it.”
Now that we know why celebrating successes is so fraught right now, and why it matters how you share those accomplishments, here are a few strategies for marking your wins in a way appropriate to our times.
It’s probably a good idea if we approach most things in our lives with more humility and awareness in general, but Brooks points out that this is especially true right now. “If you can both be aware of what you’re saying and acknowledge what you’re going through, people will probably hear it differently than if you just celebrate in this kind of blind and calloused fashion,” she explains.
Rather than stepping over the elephant in the room, think about naming it. “We can say, ‘It’s an awkward time to say this, but I guess I want to let you know that I’m excited that I got a new job, even while I’m aware that other people are suffering from under employment right now. I feel awkward but also pleased and we are friends so I just wanted to let you know,’” Brooks says.
When you name the tension and name the dilemma it lets other people know that you have some awareness of what other people are going through. “So it’s not trouncing or stepping on other people’s experiences,” she notes. “It’s acknowledging that experiences may be different.”
If you opt to celebrate one of your successes, Brooks says that to some people, it could “feel like you’re giving them the finger,” but that’s (hopefully) not what you’re trying to do. “You’re trying to celebrate, but your intention to celebrate is not necessarily the impact it has on others,” Brooks explains. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of the difference between your intention and what your impact might be on people who are in very different circumstances.
Not only a tip suitable for public speaking and standup comedy, knowing your audience is a large factor in communicating your good news. For example, if you recently got a new job, your newly unemployed friend may not be in a place where they’d appreciate hearing that news.
According to Ashley Stahl, a career expert at SoFi, if you know the impact the pandemic has had on someone going into a conversation, tailor what you say accordingly. “Stick to the facts and give credit where it is due; this isn’t the time to drop humble brags, especially if you know your audience hasn’t been as fortunate,” she tells Lifehacker.
Instead of just telling people about your success, also give them some context on how you got there. “A win is more universal and relatable when we can understand the challenges involved to achieve it,” Liza Streiff, CEO of Knopman Marks, a company that offers training for financial exams, tells Lifehacker. “The human experience is full of struggle and no one is immune to that. Seeing victory despite adversity can provide a reason for hope and inspiration we can all get behind.
Think of it as the opposite approach to schadenfreude. “Remember to also acknowledge and celebrate successes small and large that you see around you,” Streiff explains. “Everyone can use an extra dose of recognition and appreciation these days.”
Just because we’re in the middle of several continuously unfolding crises right now, that doesn’t mean celebrations of any kind should be canceled for the foreseeable future. No, we’re not suggesting inviting your closest friends and family to a private island for your birthday party—in fact, marking an occasion doesn’t require a lot of money.
“In these uncertain times of high unemployment, it’s important to remember that small celebrations can still feel special,” Andrew Wang, a managing partner at Runnymede Capital Management and host of the podcast Inspired Money tells Lifehacker. “Having a simple Friday night pizza party or sharing a movie with family feels really good. The global pandemic has recalibrated my priorities so celebrating doesn’t have to be big or expensive!”
We’re constantly being reminded that it’s OK if we’re not OK right now—an important step in the right direction regarding how we think and talk about mental health as a society. But Stahl says that there’s another side to that, too. “It’s also OK to be OK,” she explains. “There’s an element of co-dependency in choosing not to share how well you’re doing, out of fear it will make someone else uncomfortable. First and foremost, celebrate life where you can, and try not to contort yourself around others too much.”
If your recent success comes with some type of financial component, Brooks has a suggestion: “You may choose to apply some of your good fortune to promote the well-being of others through donations, encouragement or simple wisdom about how and when you boast about your good fortune.”