While most of us are counting down the hours until 2020 is over, this has been the best year ever for Matt, who, at the age of 40, finally achieved his lifelong dream of landing a book deal. “A friend said I was the only one she knew who had something good happen during the pandemic,” he tells me.
The problem is, given the hellscape of the last 363 days, as much as he wanted to gloat about it on social media, he just couldn’t. Especially the part about the film option — a detail he left out when he made a low-key post about the deal on Instagram. “Not only am I disappointed I can’t make a bigger deal of it, I feel like a dick for feeling disappointed,” he says.
Matt works in advertising, which he describes as an incredibly self-aggrandizing and self-rewarding industry, and once lockdowns hit in March, he noticed people in his field being called out on social media more and more. “Boasting about an ad award in any year is lame, but this year, it’s especially messed up,” he says. “It made me realize that maybe I’d be doing the same thing if I was bragging about my book deal on social media. There was a real feeling of ‘read the room’ in the air.”
Social media has long been a soul-crushing enterprise, bombarding users with presentations of the lives of others that make them feel like shit (study after study has shown that social media mostly leads to anxiety and depression). But in 2020, it can feel like a personal attack to see someone thriving when so many are suffering through financial devastation, a potentially terminal illness and incalculable personal losses.
“I’m actually angry about it for OTHER people,” says 37-year-old Liz, who doesn’t get why people can’t just be grateful for their luck without announcing it to the entire world, which is what she did when she got a promotion and raise this year. “From what I’ve seen, incredibly wealthy people are fine and have only experienced some minor inconveniences. I know a lot of wealthy people but also a lot of regular people so I see the stark contrast in my timeline, and I think people should show more empathy.”
Can we, though, be happy for other people if they share success in a tasteful way, even while others struggle?
It would seem so — at least per a highly informal and unscientific poll I conducted on Twitter — provided it’s done in a considerate way, of course.
We aren’t talking Kardashian-pandemic-private-island type stuff, but achievements regular people have worked toward for years that just happened to pay off in 2020. Framed this way, it’s even more sad to know they’re keeping their happiness to themselves, when the truly wealthy have zero shame. Sure, just getting through this year remotely intact is an achievement, but if you squeaked out a little more? That’s fucking great!
Along those lines, I saw a few Twitter threads inviting people to toot their 2020 horns just last week:
That said, most people still feel guilty for having had even a modicum of success this year. For 35-year-old Seth, 2020 started off with financial stability and has only gotten better as the year progressed. In addition to a thriving professional and personal life, strides in some of his creative endeavors have boosted his overall morale as well. Yet, he tells me, “I’ve shared almost none of this with anyone. I feel awkward because it’s just dumb-ass luck that I happen to be doing well now, and I’d feel bad going on about how great my life is while most of my loved ones are suffering in one way or another.”
Seth, though, does enjoy seeing others celebrate their victories. “I’m happy for them obviously, but hearing other people’s good news also gives me a vicarious thrill, because it’s like they’re expressing the joy that I feel like I can’t express.”
Similarly, 33-year-old Ed has been living an almost idyllic life the past year, all things considered. But, like with Matt and Seth, he explains, “I can’t help but have a feeling akin to survivor’s guilt. My wife and I are both thriving in our careers, we’re all doing well and we’re healthy, but we know that isn’t the case for millions across the country.”
Kendra, too, hasn’t felt comfortable sharing the joy she’s experienced this year, but she’s not sure that’s entirely fair. “2020 is the year I finally recovered from a decade-long struggle with serious depression. I noticed at the beginning of all this that what people are feeling during COVID is what I used to feel every day just normally,” she tells me. “I feel like I’ve paid my dues and deserve my current happiness, but I don’t feel safe talking about it because there’s no way to communicate how hard-won it’s been.”
“I used to feel alienated from people due to my depression, now I feel that way due to my happiness,” she continues. “These truly are strange times, where everything seems turned on its head.”
Matt doesn’t necessarily feel more isolated because of what he’s hidden, but he does lament what could have been. “I wanted this news to be like a glitter bomb going off in the faces of old bosses, jerk relatives and exes,” he says. “But COVID meant I had to take the high road and be all demure, subdued and NBD about it. Some of my enemies might not even know about it and that drives me crazy!”
Pandemic or not, good year or bad year, that’s the kind of pettiness any of us can relate to.