Social Comparison: The Cause of So Much Unhappiness
(Warning: the post below does not necessarily show off the author’s finest qualities. Even worse, I’m hoping you’ll see yourself in these behaviors, because awareness of the unhappiness caused by constantly comparing ourselves with others is the first step toward freeing ourselves from social comparison’s grip on our psyches [and wallets]. Furthermore, since social comparison is a root cause of much environmental devastation, loosening its grip is good medicine individually AND collectively. But never fear. If you make it to the close of this little essay, you’ll find some ideas for breaking free or at least harnessing social comparison for the better. )
Last Sunday evening, my friend Mary Jane brought a bag of extra green beans from her garden to share with other attendees at our weekly meditation gathering. I gratefully accepted half the bag (there was one other taker) as Mary Jane enthused about how well her vegetables are growing this summer.
My garden is NOT doing well. We’ve never bothered with a fence, but after this year — as all the peas and various other vegetables get eaten by unknown wild animals — we’re starting to think that might be a good investment. Even my blueberries, which thrived last year, had a lackluster summer. Could it be because I was a lackluster weeder?
In fact, the blueberries are my only crop. Unlike almost all my women friends here in Vermont, I am a sorry excuse for a gardener. Comparing myself to them … I just have to keep my mouth shut and not let anyone know I’m really not in their league. I hardly ever even come to the ballpark. It’s embarrassing.
My husband Bob is the real gardener of the family. Speaking of my husband, he and I have both been trying to lose weight. It’s discouraging to compare my progress with his, as he is doing significantly better than I am. I am losing weight, but at our weekly check-ins, I am only down a few ounces, while he can gleefully exclaim that he’s at a record low for the past five years.
Of course, I can take comfort in knowing I’m still doing better than our friends, another couple, who are part of this challenge with us.
Ugh. What am I doing with all this social comparison? Making myself unhappy, of course. Why can’t I enjoy my husband’s success without also berating myself for my less diligent path? And why can’t I just admire Mary Jane’s gardening bounty, accept her offer graciously, and not feel “less than” because I’m not a good gardener? And how pitiful to try and elevate my own self-esteem by noting that I am doing better than my friends — they’re my friends, for heaven’s sake.
Not only that, but some of Bob’s gardening is yielding wonderful results. He is harvesting another year’s worth of garlic, and the potatoes are doing better than ever. His garlic bulbs are so big and succulent … I found myself looking at yet another friend’s just-harvested garlic and thinking, “your bulbs aren’t as big as Bob’s!”
What??? Petty, ridiculous, mean-spirited. Okay, I’m not perfect — or as my friend Diana used to put it, “your halo’s slipping a bit” — but I don’t like this in me. It is downright unpleasant.
Sadly, I could trot out an endless array of this kind of whiny, self-centered comparison — especially after I’ve left the comfort zone of central Vermont and spent time in an urban environment. Then the flood gates of social comparison burst open, up and down, left and right. I’m worse than because I’m wearing my sloppy Vermont clothes with my unkempt, non-trendy hair. No, wait — I’m better than because I’m wearing my sloppy Vermont clothes with my unkempt, non-trendy hair. It’s a lose-lose mindset.
As Sonja Lyubomirsky notes in “The How of Happiness,” social comparison can be a pernicious destroyer of our happiness. “You can’t be envious and happy at the same time,” she observes. Nor can one be happy while disrespecting others. While social comparison is inevitable and can serve a positive purpose — we can be inspired by others to do better ourselves — it is definitely a big problem for me. I see it as the weakest link in my personal happiness chain.
Not only that, I believe social comparison is also at the core of many problems facing the planet as a whole. Lord knows, advertisers play up social comparison to the hilt to get us to buy more stuff, which can have devastating impacts on our lives, the quality of lives of workers in far off countries, and the environment. I’ve shared this link before, and I’m sure I’ll share it again, but if you want a quick primer on how our hunger to “keep up with the Jones'” affects the world around us, check out Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff.”
Even without looking at the bigger picture, social comparison can fuel endless wanting. From the Buddhist perspective, that’s synonymous with endless suffering.
Naturally, Bruce Springsteen captured the tug of social comparison in one of his songs. In “Badlands,” he sings, “Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything.” There you go — social comparison all the way around. I used to compare my poor husband’s arms with the super-buff Bruce, but even while doing so, I knew it was totally unfair to compare my real life regular guy with a mega-celebrity. Yet, how many people get caught in the trap of comparing ourselves with celebrities — favorably or unfavorably? I suspect it’s a major cause of unhappiness.
Even in the virtual world, social comparison can be a real downer: last year, a University of Michigan study found that Facebook makes users sadder. According to an NPR report, research co-author John Jonides, a cognitive neuroscientist, noted: “When you’re on a site like Facebook, you get lots of posts about what people are doing. That sets up social comparison — you maybe feel your life is not as full and rich as those people you see on Facebook.”
Happily — really, literally, happily — we can loosen the grip of social comparison. A few suggestions follow.
First of all, turn it around — I/we can look at ways that we’d like to improve and see if there are others who inspire us. For example, I wonder about all the ways I can help stave off (or at least ameliorate) climate change. I know we need big systemic change to do this effectively — and, at the same time, I know that there are many, many small steps each of us can take. To find out what others are doing, two days ago I started a new Facebook group called, “Saving the Planet One Small Step at a Time.” Already, I can compare myself to those who are using very fundamental cleaning supplies (plain baking soda and apple cider vinegar instead of store bought shampoo) and with a friend of friend whose blog, “The Non-Consumer Advocate,” focuses on ways we can all end our soul and planet destroying wasteful consuming ways.
I want to compare myself with these folks — they help me aspire to do better.
Even here, though, the comparison needs to be thoughtful. Recently, when a post showed up on Facebook about a recent study showing that Vermonters spend less time grooming themselves than residents of any other state, I was quite pleased at this distinction. So were many of my Vermont friends. One could argue that this shows a heightened connection with nature and an awareness of the chemicals in cosmetics, etc. Or … could it just be unhealthy Vermont exceptionalism? I’m not sure.
Sometimes, I strive to be the one others look up to. When I’m teaching meditation classes, I try to lead by example (ie, meditating every day). When I mediate, I work at being the calm eye in the midst of a raging conflict storm. Like most mediators, I try to model productive conflict strategies.
Here, too, it is important to be self-aware. We are all on journeys. I myself have a lot to learn about meditation. And I also can get caught up in personally challenging conflicts. Even while modeling, I need to remain humble, which is not easy.
Second, we can reframe how we view our own situations. For example, I have a lot of social comparison issues with my house. All too often I look at others’ homes and think, I wish I had your house, not mine. Yet my house has many wonderful aspects. As a former barn, it is unique, special, interesting, artsy, roomy, and comfortable. My house is situated in the heart of a thriving, supportive community and across the street from a beautiful Vermont lake. It is not perfect. Neither am I. Lately, when I catch myself obsessing about my house’s shortcomings, I try to reframe my thinking to focus on all its plusses instead.
Third, if you catch yourself thinking that your house — or whatever else — is better than, that is a fine time to practice gratitude. Feeling grateful for is much more positive than feeling superior to.
Fourth, I’ll turn back to Annie Leonard and her more recent offering, “The Story of Solutions.” On a personal level, on a systems level, can we turn away from “more” and focus on “better” instead? Better choices, that is — not “better than.” This simple formula for re-defining our goals is particularly powerful in curbing materialistic social comparison cravings.
Fifth, try making your own “Positivity Portfolio.” I learned about this technique in the Certificate in Positive Psychology program I’m currently enrolled in. Instructor Tal Ben-Shahar introduced us to this happiness tool, first developed by James Pawelski at the University of Pennsylvania. The idea is to focus on a way in which you would like to change for the better, and then assemble a package of pictures, quotes, music, etc. — whatever stirs your heart and inspires you in this area. I did a power point Positivity Portfolio on the theme of abundance, to counteract my social comparison tendencies.
At first the project was awesome! I was so excited listing the abundance in my life, and finding photos to illustrate the list. But then, the list got too big and the project dragged on and on. It took me days to build my portfolio. I just have too much! I mean that in a good way. Clearly, life is incredibly abundant. It was an excellent project.
Fifth, perhaps most importantly: meditate. In order to loosen the grip of social comparison in our lives, we have to first develop an awareness of its existence within. I can think of no better tool to heighten self-awareness than a regular meditation practice. Meditation can also help us become more compassionate toward ourselves and others, instead of “less than” or “better than.”
In any case, despite what I wrote at the beginning of this essay, I think I am improving my ability to recognize social comparison creeping into my thinking. When I recognize it, I am more likely to lean into my own abundance, and let go of envy.
For example, a few weeks back, during a Bone Builders class, I glanced at the shoes of the woman next to me. This woman is also a friend, a lovely person who happens to have a lot more money than I have. She had spiffy new shoes. Not over the top, but very stylish. Then I looked back at my own shoes, which are old, with a lot of mileage and one noticeable dot of teal paint on them. It was a ripe moment for social comparison. Instead, rather than covet my friend’s shoes — or even worse, resent her affluence — I found the whole situation humorous. Kind of sweet, even. My own shoes are just fine. They do the job. I like the paint spot. I do not need to buy new shoes. All is well.
One final thought: abundance comes in many guises. True, it has not been a good year for my blueberries. But there were enough berries this summer to go outside with my two year-old granddaughter almost every day and pick blueberries together. This was a special activity for just the two of us, and it is a memory I can savor forever. That, my friends, is abundance.