Here’s an experiment that humans will instantly identify with.
Frans de Waal of Emory University trained capuchin monkeys to use stones as a currency. An individual would hold out an open hand, the monkey would drop a stone into it and would be given a slice of cucumber in return.
All went well till the cucumber was exchanged for a juicy grape. The catch: the grape was only given to some, not all. And it irked the others who reacted by refusing to play, no longer accepting the cucumber, flinging it to the ground, or sulking.
Amusing as it may be, it’s certainly a little too familiar for comfort.
Our outcomes are not evaluated in isolation but a comparative process. We don’t assess objectively but rely on comparisons. Before you disagree, answer the following questions:
Do we, as a family, earn enough? Am I well paid? Are my children doing well? Do I need a new car? Is my house big enough?
If you are honest, you will realise that the answers are consciously or subconsciously benchmarked against your social circle, neighbourhood, extended family and colleagues.
This extends not just to materialism, but relationships, beauty, fitness, intelligence, and success. Social psychologists Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer argue in Friend and Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both, that social comparison is an innate human tendency. We are hardwired to make comparisons across every domain we operate in.
If this is the reality of human nature, what must we do?
Unfortunately, it has the potential to affect our level of happiness; you cannot ignore the spikes of envy when a peer is just that much more financially secure than you.
But what you can control, you must channelise. Use it to fuel motivation, not get you down in the dumps.
You are Comparing Someone’s Best with Your Worst
Social media portrays a heavily skewed image of one’s life, and it is extremely superficial. An individual will not post their bad hair day photo or bloated morning face on Instagram. Neither will they click, let alone post, a selfie that reveals puffy eyes and dark circles as a result of crying all night. What you get to see is a well-crafted and deliberate image. Those well portrayed peak experiences are the exception, the norm is the mundane day-to-day existence which you do not see.
University of Houston psychologist Mai-Ly Nguyen Steers once called it “everyone else’s highlights reel”. Remember, this “highlights reel” is a distorted slice of reality, and not the full picture. You too have your peak days, where you are looking fabulous and dining in a lovely restaurant. You too have a “highlights reel”. Think about those.
Deliberately View Various Benchmarks
Social psychologist Leon Festinger once noted that there are two types of social comparison: upward and downward. We make upward comparisons with people who we think are better than us, and downward comparisons with those who we think are worse off. Either way, we are constantly comparing.
Galinksy and Schweitzer write that when it comes to using social comparison to boost your motivation, the key rule is:
The book recounts a study on Olympic medalists. Silver medalists tend to feel miserable because they missed the gold. Interestingly, bronze medalists are happy and relieved that they got a medal (any medal), and so compare their outcome to those who never made it – the fourth and beyond. Consequently, they tend to be more pleased with themselves than the silver medalists, despite the latter having beat them.
Bring to Mind Your Ignorance
You are ignorant about their life. You have no idea if they are deeply in debt to fund that lifestyle. If they are regularly saving. If they have accumulated substantial assets. The feeling of deficiency may be completely misplaced as you may be the one who is financially better off.
No one is truly aware of what price another individual has paid. Maybe at one point of time they lived extremely frugal lives. Or, they have sacrificed being with family to be workaholics with a huge paycheque. They might have missed out on the small pleasures of life that make it all worthwhile for you.
There is always a cost. It could also be one of integrity.
Bring Conscious Thought to Mind
What is it that you want from life? It may be completely different from what they are seeking. Discover what you value and choose your metrics for success. If you are constantly swayed by others, you are probably spending time and energy working towards a goal that isn’t in line with your values.
Maybe their goal is to buy a huge house and travel abroad once a year. You, on the other hand, want to build an authentic and deeper relationship with your little son. And you are willing to sacrifice ambitious positions that will deprive you of time with him. You will reject jobs that would require you having to spend more time away from home. Your goal as an individual and as a parent is completely different from what they want. Hence, why would you compare?
You are not in a race with them. You are running your own life at your own pace.
It’s a Part of Human Existence
Comparisons are toxic. Financially, it could result in lower savings and more debt. Don’t scoff, think about how many have taken loans for wedding receptions to keep up appearances. Or loans to go on a holiday. All this adds to your stress levels and feelings of discontentment.
Turn this around. Have role models and mentors. Think about someone whose financial life or behaviour you admire. You could look up to them for their contentment, their ability to live below their means, their humility in not wanting to impress others, their minimalism. Or a skill in someone very successful. I have increased my reading, picking up that habit from others who are much more successful than me.
Pick something in someone you envy or admire, and draw a plan to realistically achieve it yourself over time.
Make sure the goal you are setting is realistic, positive, and practical.
The author is Senior Editor at Morningstar