When you move to New York, you will be young, with enviable hair.
You will find a job serving coffee. You will find a non-rich roommate. Together, you’ll split the rent on a two-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village. You will pay close to $5,000 per month for these uncluttered rooms decorated to Crate-and-Barrel perfection.
All fantasy, of course. But whether you’re aware of it or not, a secret part of you might sort of believe it’s true—if the following two statements apply to you:
1. You watched hours of the sitcom Friends growing up.
2. You have never lived in New York City.
Here’s how those two work together: The former repeatedly exposes you to a real-estate fantasy. The latter means you’re not inoculated against this fantasy by direct experience. End result: false idea of Manhattan real estate prices.
So is it a big deal to have a skewed view of big-city real estate? Probably not. But imagine how you’d feel if you moved from the small-town Midwest to Manhattan expecting 1,500 square feet on minimum wage. That could be a problem.
Monica’s apartment on Friends is the classic example of unrealistic living spaces on television. There are many more. It’s possible—not proven, not even tested, but very, very possible—that such unrealistic living spaces could help to explain the creeping dissatisfaction of contemporary Western life.
Research suggests that exposure to violence on television causes viewers to assume the world is more violent than it is. Research on romantic comedy viewership tells us that viewers who identify with the onscreen characters are more likely to express dissatisfaction with their own spouses.
Is it much of a stretch to assume that, in some subtle, intimate way, Monica’s apartment—and the countless other unrealistic living spaces on television—are seeping into our minds and setting us up for sadder lives?
More on that later; first, a brief tour through the phenomenon we’re wringing our hands over.
A Short History of Real Estate Fantasy on Television
Countless television shows supposedly set in reality reach Game of Thrones levels of fantasy for real estate prices. Here are just a few of the most enduring examples:
1. I Love Lucy
Unrealistic apartments have been part of television from early on. Even I Love Lucy‘s setting stretches the imagination, says Shane Rosen-Gould, a real estate agent at the Manhattan-based Stribling and Associates.
“Lucy and [Ricky] Ricardo’s first apartment on the show was a nice-sized one-bedroom with high ceilings and a fireplace in the living room…I would estimate the rent to be around $2,900 a month,” Rosen-Gould says. “Landlords usually require tenants to make 40 times the first year’s rent, so the income requirement would be $116,000.”
That’s in contemporary dollars, of course. It still sounds like a lot for a local bandleader.
Next to Carrie Bradshaw’s Manhattan dream life, funded entirely by a once-weekly newspaper column, our old pals on Friends have the least-realistic finances of any TV show set in New York City (which seems like most of them).
“Monica and Chandler better be bringing the bucks today,” says real estate educator Denise Supplee. “The average cost to rent in Greenwich Village at the corner of Bedford and Grove, where they all lived, is about $3,500—almost $5,000 per month for a two-bedroom apartment with just one bath.”
What’s the deal with Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment? No trust-fundless stand-up comedian could cover the rent in that gorgeous, 1,000-square-foot Manhattan apartment.
“Along with a cosmetic kitchen renovation (stainless appliances, modern cabinets), I would be very confident pricing this unit at $3,550,” says Emile L’Eplattenier, real estate marketing and sales analyst at Fit Small Business.
Before you sneer at these classic TV shows, consider that there are practical reasons show creators give their characters living spaces they could never afford in real life.
For instance, the crew needs a large enough space for multiple camera angles. The characters need room to move. Imagine Kramer staggering into a dim and crowded studio apartment.
But regardless of the creators’ intentions, questions about the effects of their constructed settings remain. Are we all walking around just a little bit more disappointed with our lives because of them?
According to Dr. Thalia R. Goldstein, assistant professor of applied developmental psychology at George Mason University, “The shortest answer is, as always, ‘It depends.'”
Problem #1: Setting Up Unrealistic Expectations
We know that what we see on television is not a direct lived experience. We know that a real-life Luke Cage, partially employed as a handyman for a local barber, could never afford the $3,100 monthly rent he’d have to pay in Harlem (rent estimated by real-estate site Trulia). Still, we don’t complain. Lacking first-hand experience of apartment-hunting in Harlem, in fact, long-time Luke Cage viewers might start to believe minimal employment would cover this rent.
And that, says Dr. Robin Nabi, professor of media effects and health communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is all due to a natural limitation of the human brain. The brain evolved to react to real events, not depicted events. In some ways, it doesn’t know how to tell the difference.
“We can’t help but have [television] inform how we see the world, because our brains are still so primitive in a lot of ways,” Nabi says. “We know that dramatic sequence is not real, was produced in a studio with CGI, but our brain, still, for that instant that we see it, is responding as if it’s real.”
Think of the thrill you get when the undead hordes break into our heroes’ compound on The Walking Dead. Think of the bruise on your heart when Buffy breaks up with Angel. Think of the warm gut-glow that comes from watching Lorelai and Rory relax in their impossibly gorgeous kitchen on Gilmore Girls.
There’s more than emotion going on here. The things you see on television help to inform your broader view of the world. The more TV you watch, the more vulnerable to this phenomenon you are. This idea is so embedded into the bedrock of media studies that it has a name: “cultivation theory.”
What Cultivation Theory Has to Tell Us About False Luxury on Television
“Cultivation theory basically says that the more television we watch generally, the more likely we are to see the real world as it is depicted in television,” Nabi says. “So that doesn’t mean it totally overrides our own lived experiences, not at all. But it can start to shape the way in which we see the world.”
When we watch hours of television shows depicting glamorous living spaces in unrealistic contexts, our world-view might grow to include affordable and nice Manhattan housing. That, generally, does not exist. This becomes a problem when we, the great un-rich, move to New York City expecting luxury.
But the danger of unrealistic expectations also extends way beyond the Hudson River. How many 18-year-olds move into their first apartments only to find that everything is a bit filthier, a bit smaller, and a bit more expensive than they’d expected? How many young adults lose years struggling with the sheer disappointment of adult life, compared to the adventures depicted on screens?
“You have this expectation, and when it’s violated negatively, you expect it to be better than it actually is, then that leads to frustration, disappointment, possibly depression,” Nabi says. “Which are just the typical emotional responses to any negative violation of expectation.”
Negative violation of expectation. That sounds like a great way to describe growing up. The world zigs while you zag, you hit speed bumps of inadequacy, nothing is as you imagined it to be. Then you adjust. Repeat.
For many who gorge themselves on the Western media diet, becoming an adult is a pain. How much blame for that can we lay at the feet of television—in particular the medium’s blatantly unrealistic depictions of everything from living rooms to fistfights?
Problem #2: The “Everyone’s On Vacation But Me” Effect
When we imagine adult life to be like Carrie Bradshaw’s, we set up unrealistic expectations for ourselves. Reality always wins, and that can sting. But this dynamic is only one way TV’s fantasy living spaces might make us sadder, angrier, or more disappointed with our own lives.
There’s also a chance we’ll look around at our living spaces and wonder why everyone else has such nice stuff, while our rooms seem so mundane. When we identify with figures on screens—our friends on social media or fictional characters on TV—we often make comparisons.
But to be clear, we don’t compare ourselves to just anyone.
“People will socially compare to those who are like them on relevant dimensions,” Nabi says. “Those are the two criteria.”
So you’re not in much danger of finding yourself lacking next to the rich-but-unhappy protagonist of Bojack Horseman, for instance, because you are not a walking, speaking horse. However, if you’re a young woman trying to make it in Brooklyn, you might very well compare yourself to Hannah Horvath from Girls. Your emotional reaction, and ensuing behavior, will depend entirely on where you find yourself in relation to your object of comparison.
Social Comparison Blues and How to Handle Them
“There are two directions for social comparison,” says Goldstein. “Downward and upward. Any type of upward social comparison (where you compare yourself to someone who has more, or better than you), will cause some levels of anxiety, sadness, envy. Of course, this is all depending on the individual’s personalities, the field of comparison, et cetera.”
In an age where Instagram stars spread unrealistic expectations of reality further and faster than the sitcom settings of the ’90s ever could, how do we keep our hearts from drowning in upward social comparisons? The answer, says Nabi, is to cultivate media literacy.
“Think about social media use … You see people celebrating, post after post, they’re on vacation, they’re celebrating their anniversary, and oh, cute little first-day-of-school pictures of their kids,” Nabi says. “And you go, ‘Everyone’s life is so much better than mine.'”
Then you feel sad. But the way to stop those negative emotions in their tracks is to remind yourself that all of that content is mediated. It is curated. It is manipulated and arranged; it’s artifice. Your lived experience is raw. It’s a whirlwind of being that won’t stand still long enough for the perfect selfie.
The trick is to know the difference. If you feel bad after watching a show that features both characters you identify with and an unrealistically luxurious setting, ask yourself if you’re making an unfair comparison. Pro tip: This trick works with Instagram frenemies, too.
“You just have to tell yourself, ‘This is not reality,'” Nabi says. “And there’s some evidence that that works. It’s effortful.”
Effortful media consumption? That sounds as fantastic as Manhattan rent on a server’s salary. But only one of these things is possible.