Throughout this year I’ve been doing an ongoing series of blog posts on the topic of gratitude. I want to continue that discussion by looking at one of the main barriers to gratefulness, which is our compulsive tendency to compare ourselves to others.
All too often, the possessions, lifestyle, wealth and opportunities of those around us create the baseline for what we expect to be normal, with the tragic result that we often only feel grateful for blessings that raise us above that baseline. If we compared ourselves to those throughout history, we would see that we have enormous grounds for gratitude, but instead we tend to compare ourselves to those around us.
The research on this is overwhelming, so I will limit myself to just a few of the many studies that have been conducted.
Data published in 2010 from a Europe-wide survey found that people who compared their incomes to others were less happy with what they had. The comparisons that were most damaging to happiness were when people compared their incomes to friends from school and university.
Other research conducted in numerous different contexts has found that social comparisons in an “upward” directions (that is, when we compare ourselves to people we deem superior to us) are associated with depression, negative health outcomes and decreased self-esteem.
That is probably unsurprising and is something we might have guessed without reference to extensive research. But what is really interesting is what Sonja Lyubomirsky, from the University of California Riverside, discovered when she decided to look at the different ways happy and unhappy people respond to social comparisons. In 1997, Lyubomirsky teamed up with Lee Ross from Stanford, to explore the different ways happy vs. unhappy people responded to positive and negative feedback following a teaching exercise. They found that positive feedback enhanced the self-confidence of happy participants even if the happy person learned that their peers got a better result. On the other hand, unhappy people increased in self-confidence when they received positive feedback alone, but increased only minimally when they learned their peers did better. However, the really interesting part of the study was when participants were given negative feedback and told that their peers did even worse. During this part of the study unhappy participants showed greater increases in self-confidence after learning that they did poorly than after learning that they did well, because in the former case they were told that their peer did even worse and in the latter case they were told that their peer did better. By contrast, for the happy participants, the condition of doing well while their peer did better led to more self-confidence than learning they did poorly that their peer did worse.
The conclusion is not simply that those who are consumed by peer comparison are doomed to live an unhappier life, but that unhappy people actually enjoy seeing other people do worse!
In a different experiment involving desserts, Lyubomirsky confirmed that unhappy people tended to denigrate the fortunes of others, whereas happy people simply enjoyed what they were given. The New York Times described the experiment:
Dr. Lyubomirsky designed an experiment in which people ranked 10 desserts, knowing they’d get one. Each participant was then given his second or third choice and told to rank all 10 desserts again. …Dr. Ward remembered, “The happy people said, ‘Well, this dessert is good, and I’m sure the others are good, too!’ The unhappy people liked their desserts just fine but indicated they were extremely relieved not to have received the ‘awful’ nonchosen dessert. In other words, unhappy people derogated the dessert they did not receive, whereas happy people felt no need to do so.”
In another context Dr. Lyubomirsky did work with children and found that unhappy children had unconsciously imbibed the notion that the only way to achieve true happiness is at another person’s expense. Quoting again from The New York Times:
“Dr. Lyubomirsky asked two volunteers at a time to use hand puppets to teach a lesson about friendship to an imaginary audience of children. Afterward the puppeteers were evaluated against each other: you did great but your partner did better, or you did badly but your partner was even worse.
The volunteers who were happy before the puppeteering review cared a bit about hearing that they had performed worse than their colleagues but largely shrugged it off. The unhappy volunteers were devastated. Dr. Lyubomirsky writes: “It appears that unhappy individuals have bought into the sardonic maxim attributed to Gore Vidal: ‘For true happiness, it is not enough to be successful oneself. … One’s friends must fail.’ ” This, she says, is probably why a great number of people know the German word schadenfreude (describing happiness at another’s misfortune) and almost nobody knows the Yiddish shep naches (happiness at another’s success).”
This seemed to suggest that a truly happy person is someone who can enjoy his or her blessings, but also take delight in the way God has blessed others. By contrast, for unhappy people, happiness tends to be a zero-sum game, whereby we are endlessly competing with those around us. This social comparison model of happiness (happiness equals what I get minus what others get) leads people to irrational states of mind whereby they end up preferring less optimal outcomes in order to be above other people. This emerged quite clearly in a study conducted at Harvard and related in Manel Baucells and Rakesh Sarin’s book Engineering Happiness: A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life:
“…students at the Harvard School of Public Health were asked to choose in which of two worlds they would prefer to live. In World A, your current yearly income is $50,000 and others earn $25,000. In World B, your current yearly income is $1000,000 and others earn $200,000.
“Which one would you choose?
“A majority of the students preferred World A in spite of it providing half the income available in World B, presumably because their relative income position was higher. This same answer pattern was given for several other domains of life, such as intelligence and attractiveness. Again, people prefer lower absolute levels as long as they have an advantageous relative standing. [To read the full study, click here]
This study gets at the root of how irrational it is to compare ourselves to others. When we begin mental comparisons with those around us we find that the exact same situation that would make us happy in one part of the world, or in one time of history, leads to misery in another context. The difference between happiness and misery is not to be found in the circumstances themselves, but in our larger social context which invites either upward or downward social comparisons. This means that the exact same situation that could make someone happy in one geographical or historical or social context, can lead to misery in another context. (For examples of this, see my article ‘Gratefulness and the Rising Baseline.’) Our perception of our blessings, our achievements, our intelligence, our attractiveness and even our value as a person, is imperceptibly affected by these subtle comparisons in which we are constantly engaged.
Thomas J. DeLong commented on the comparison trap for the Harvard Business Review, observing that
“Comparing is a trap that permeates our lives, especially if we’re high-need-for-achievement professionals. No matter how successful we are and how many goals we achieve, this trap causes us to recalibrate our accomplishments and reset the bar for how we define success. What we’ve done in the past doesn’t matter; real success or achievement requires something more — a title we’ve never held, a task we’ve never done, a company we’ve never worked for. The process of comparing requires us to keep making our target more difficult to hit. And if we manage to hit this difficult target, we simply create an even more difficult one at which we can aim. No matter how much we achieve, we are never satisfied with our achievements when we’re caught in the comparing trap.”
If instead of thinking of happiness as a zero-sum game, or as a competition between us and our peers, we could instead develop the mentality of shep naches (happiness at another’s success), just imagine how much grateful (and therefore happy) we would be. A person who can train himself or herself to be grateful for other people’s fortune and well-being, has continual grounds for happiness even when everything is going wrong in his or her life.