On comparison

"Comparison is the thief of joy," President Theodore Roosevelt is quoted to have said.

If you want to see this in action, head on over to Instagram and scroll around a bit. You'll see people getting on private jets, showing off watches that cost five figures and sports cars that cost a half-million dollars. Compare their (apparent) lives to yours, and you'll probably feel like garbage.

Even if you get inspired to get what someone else has, you're still considering yourself as less right now. That can't be good for you.

In fact, from a study by two Princeton researchers, Jillian K. Swencionis and Susan T. Fiske:

Social comparison pervades our interactions with others, informing us of our standing and motivating improvement, but producing negative emotional and behavioral consequences that can harm relationships and lead to poor health outcomes.

Social comparison motivates improvement, but harms relationships and leads to poor health outcomes.


Now, consider that most of us are always part of a socially organized hierarchy. We're a box on an organizational chart, probably with some people above us, maybe with some people below us. In the military, the rank hierarchy is even clearer.

It's the same in the wild — many animals form hierarchical social structures — but since we're interested in better humanhood, let's skip the animal bit.

Swencionis and Fiske write:

[C]onstant social comparisons can be dangerous. Judging ourselves relative to others high in social status has known consequences, especially for members of stigmatized groups, who endure social stress as a result of hierarchies. Social stress involved in cross-status and cross-race interactions engenders a physiological threat response, hindering performance on tasks in the short term and gradually amassing negative health effects through emotional and physiological processes in the long term.

Comparing yourself to others can hurt the way you do your job and interact with your family in the short term, and get you sick and possibly depressed in the long term.

Are you starting to be a little happier where you are?

Consider this: jealousy (the "that person has what I want" comparison) spikes stress hormones like testosterone and cortisol. Testosterone created in the body is associated with aggression (testosterone given exogenously is not — you're likely to get more aggressive if your body produces a spike, but not if you're given a shot or a pill). Cortisol can lead to fat gain, poor sleep and other problems typically considered to be stress-related.

Do people post their highlights to make us feel bad, then?

Probably not. Pride in one's accomplishments triggers a strong, positive emotional response (significantly stronger than shame, in fact). In all likelihood, most people post stuff they're proud of because it makes them feel good, not because it makes others feel bad.

But is comparison always bad? I'm going to say no.

Two instances come to mind. One is objective comparison. If you're honestly not sure where you are in life, you might discover you're better off than you thought you were by comparing yourself to others. HOWEVER, this comes with the caveat that it's a good check-in and nothing more. When you find off you're better off than you thought you were, it's a good time to be grateful. It's not a good time to relax or to think of those not doing as well as less than you.

The other instance is physical feats.

Nobody thought a sub-4 minute mile was possible until Roger Bannister ran it. Now well over 1,000 people have accomplished it.

In the 1980s, skateboarders were on the hunt for a 540-degree rotation. In 2012, a 12-year-old landed a 1080-degree spin in competition.

People just needed to see it accomplished to compare their methods and match (or exceed) accomplishments. It's something Steven Kotler writes about in The Rise of Superman in terms of climbing routes previously thought un-climbable: Once someone figures out how to do it, others can copy it almost immediately.

So, to compare or not to compare? You do so at your own risk.



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