We’ve all looked at someone else and thought, “Why are they more successful/beautiful/intelligent/perfect than me?” Feelings of inadequacy bubble up and suddenly we’re beating ourselves up for not being as X, Y, Z as the person next to us. Often, comparing ourselves can be detrimental and result in a whole host of negative feelings. While feeling superior to someone can be a temporary high, constant comparisons generally end in lows. But comparing is a natural human trait. And it’s not always totally bad. Really, it’s about turning your comparisons into something productive — and remembering to be kind, compassionate, and a friend to yourself in the process! It's a matter of reframing the way you compare yourself to think, "What real changes can I make to obtain these qualities I want to have?" instead of thinking, "Why can't I be more like this?"
You’re Going to Do it No Matter What
It's human nature to compare yourself to others. But learning a healthy way to do it is important.
You’re wired to compare yourself to others. That’s a fact. Researchers wanted to test whether comparison was an innate human behavior. So, they had 114 college students participate in a study where they flashed photos for 110-miliseconds, which isn’t long enough for the participants to recognize what they’d seen consciously (American Psychological Association
). The brain, however, still knew. The photos were either of a baby girl or an elderly woman, they were then asked to rate themselves on a seven-point age scale. Those who saw the baby girl ranked themselves higher (read: older) on the scale than those who’d seen the picture of the elderly woman. The researchers found the same pattern with other images and scales. Pictures of a clown and Albert Einstein resulted in those who saw the clown rating themselves higher on an intelligence scale, while those who saw Albert Einstein rated themselves lower. The same goes for attractive and unattractive faces. Those who looked at an attractive female face rated themselves as less attractive and those who looked at an unattractive female face rate themselves as more attractive. The bottom line is that you’re going to compare yourself to others because it’s natural. Human beings desire for knowledge and socialization makes us prone to compare ourselves.
Comparison is Often, But Not Always Negative
When you cooperate with people who had admirable qualities, you're more like to think of yourself as having those qualities than if you compete against those same people.
Oftentimes, the people who compare themselves to others the most are unhappy (Journal of Adult Development
). Because feelings of comparison often bring on feelings of inadequacy, regret, guilt, etc. And those people who are happy are generally less likely to compare themselves and also less likely to be ruffled when they’re put in situations where most other people would make comparisons. Often, social comparison causes destructive emotions and contributes to a cycle of unhappiness. Trickier still, social comparison can change your mood positively or negatively depending on how you feel about the person you're comparing yourself to. This is actually a matter of cooperation versus competition. When you cooperate with someone, you’re more likely to associate with them and seek out similar qualities — for better or worse — and when you compete against someone, you’re like to compare yourself to them and seek out differing qualities (American Psychological Association
). Researchers figured this out by surveying 75 college students in an experiment. They told students they were either working with or competing with another student and presented them with a written description of the student. They were then asked to rate themselves. When students were competing with a students considered “dull” they rated themselves higher for intelligence than those who thought they were competing against a “bright” student. But the opposite was true for cooperation. Students who were cooperating with a “dull” student rated themselves lower for intelligence than those who were cooperating with a “bright” student rated themselves higher for intelligence. This can be a double-edge sword. On the one hand, these external and often uncontrollable forces can act on your sense of well-being. On the other hand, being aware of these facts might propel you to work with people who you respect and admire — which can end up benefiting you in even more ways. The trick is to learn how to use social comparison to fuel you instead of letting it hinder you, and getting to a place where comparison isn't as detrimental to your psyche.
How to Use Social Comparison in a Healthy Way
If someone is, has, or does something you'd like to be, have, or do, instead of getting jealous, considering looking at how they obtained those things and set realistic goals to help you achieve what you want.
Studies show that if you feel in some way inferior to your peers, you’ll feel bad about yourself. For example, you’ll feel more content with your income if you’re surrounded by people with a lower income than if you had the same income but were surrounded by people with a higher income (The Quarterly Journal of Economics
). While that make you want to jump right to moving in lower income circles and making less attractive friends, you might want to think twice. Much of it has to do with perspective and how you decide to treat feeling inferior. A study looking at MBA’s who participated in a study by managing a pre-designed company and were compared to their peers as averages, had interesting results. Those with similar or superior scores to their counterparts continued to work at the same level. But those who initially did the same and then worse than their peers began to decline in their decisiveness and function, suggesting the ego-hit affected their performance. Interestingly, those who started out below their peers generally worked to surpass them in later scores (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
). Essentially, people who set personal goals and see their skills as something to master, rather than something predetermined, are more likely to be successful. Instead of assuming your ability to do something is static, you will do better if you think that it can be improved with hard work and effort. And one of the tricks for improving instead of declining is, instead of feeling jealousy when comparing yourself to someone you think is better off, to examine how they got there (New York Times
). For example, if you want to be rich, instead of resenting those who are better off and feeling jealousy, you should look at how they managed to be successful. You can use what you learn to set goals.
Human beings are predisposed to compare themselves to others. The difference between someone who does it detrimentally and someone who does it beneficially, is that the former beats him or herself up while the latter recognizes attainable goals to improve him or herself. Surrounding yourself with people you admire and working with them, instead of trying to compete with them, can help you build confidence in your abilities. Recognizing how they’ve gotten their success can help you come up with concrete goals to meet. If you find that you compare yourself to others constantly, it’s important to address these issues. Talking to your doctor or a mental health professional can prove immensely beneficial in taking steps toward a healthier mindset.