How would you feel if I gave you a nice, reliable Honda Civic for free?
You would be pretty happy, wouldn’t you?
But what if you found out that I gave your friends their choice of any car they wanted for free and they all woke up in a new Bugatti?
Suddenly, you’re not as happy are you? You may even feel angry and blindsided.
This quick experiment illustrates the comparative nature of happiness. Either way you still get the same car, yet you don’t feel as happy when you compare it to what your friends got.
Comparing yourself to others is in our DNA, so don’t beat yourself up!
Social comparison theory states that we compare ourselves to others to make accurate evaluations of ourselves. We can thank evolution for this double-edged sword.
Compared to most animals, we are slow, hairless, defenseless creatures. As a caveman, my survival depended on making an accurate assessment of what other people were thinking. If I knew where I stood in the tribe, I knew how to behave to gain access to resources and not get killed.
However, since our early ancestors grew up in bands of 50–200 people, our brains are hardwired to only keep track of about 150. Anything beyond that becomes part of the faceless mass known as “they.” “They” exist outside your sphere of influence so there’s no point in measuring up to them.
Fast forward to today, you still have the same nervous monkey brain, but there are zero boundaries for who or what you can come into contact with. You can creep for hours on Facebook gawking at people you’ve never met, seething envy when they have a better job/spouse/physique, sending you to bed in a worse mood without that person ever knowing you exist.
The irony is that people edit their online persona to look like their life is more exciting and full of joy than it actually is, so you end up comparing your behind-the-scenes internal monologue with their public highlight reel.
Even if you stay off social media, we live in a global economy, so it’s easy to feel like it’s you against the world. If you’re studying at a university, you have to worry about competing with thousands of people in your major. Not only that, but everyone else in different majors who go to your school. Not only that, but everyone who goes to an equally reputable school. So if you’re in college, it’s you against hundreds of thousands of same-aged, equally intelligent peers.
But it gets much, much worse than that.
Did you forget about the rest of the world’s most attractive, talented people?
Every day we are bombarded with images of the unattainable ideal. Gorgeous genetic anomalies are photographed with perfect lighting, photoshopped, and plastered on every advertisement and magazine cover.
These images make women feel like crap, and guys wish they had hotter girlfriends. The effect is the same in reverse for guys viewing photos of very powerful men. After a long day, you’re tired and already feel like you’re doing your best when you make eye contact with the Playboy centerfold or the powerful man on Men’s Health and think “if only I had that.”
These people are the top 1% performers in their fields. They are basically unbeatable rivals. To compare yourself to them is a losing game.
Now I’m not suggesting that you just play it safe and settle, but let’s say you work ass off and actually make it to the top — Good luck maintaining that level of success over time, especially with newer peers every day, nipping at your heels for a piece of the throne.
In small doses, comparison can light a fire under our ass to improve our lives, but in our hyper-connected world it’s more likely to cause envy, distrust, anxiety and depression.
This may be why Forbes’ richest Americans have about the same level of happiness as the Amish. The billionaires reached the impossible ideal, but the Amish are off the grid so that comparison isn’t even a part of their consciousness.
Luckily there’s a way to get out of the comparison trap without leaving your technology behind. Ok So what’s the solution?
1. Be Grateful For What You Already Have
If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you have a home — with running water, and access to education, whether in school or online. Congratulations, you are among the top 8% wealthiest people on Earth.
People who write down 3 things they are grateful for every night are happier. By focusing on what you already have, you train your mind to come from a place of abundance.
“Happiness is not having what you want. It is wanting what you have.” — Anon
Our imagination got us out of the caves, but it is the source of most modern unhappiness. Numerous studies demonstrate that we are notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happier in the future. Big life events like winning the lottery or getting in a bad car crash do have effects that can last years or longer, but not as big as you’d think. Life is full of ups and downs, and we generally adapt to them pretty quickly. The difference in overall quality of life depends on how we respond to each situation.
We have the choice to feel helpless and blame society/genetics/family for our problems and not even try. Or, we can view failure as another word for learning and continually grow each day. (Pro tip: go with the second option).
Every time you find yourself thinking, “if I just get a good grade on this test/if I just get this girl/If I just make a six-figure salary, etc., I’ll be happy” — catch yourself, challenge it, and be present. Live in the moment; you are right where you’re supposed to be.
2. Focus on Your Strengths
As cliché as it sounds it’s true: there is no one on Earth better at being you than you. We all have different strengths. Studies suggest that people who focus on cultivating their strengths are happier and more successful than people who focus on compensating for their weaknesses.
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” — Anonymous
Don’t get me wrong: you should aim to be a well-rounded person, but no flaw holds up as a valid excuse to live your life with a victim mentality. So don’t waste your precious time overcompensating to be like the person on TV. Instead, turn your signature strengths into a personal brand of awesomeness. Let your freak flag fly!
3. Focus on Serving Others
So it’s clear that our overly social brain can be a curse, but it can also be a gift. You have mirror neurons that fire off the same way whether you watch an action or perform the action yourself. When you see someone in pain, you feel it on a gut level. When you connect with others and make them feel good, you feel good — it’s a win/win situation.
It’s easy to resort to judging and criticizing others to boost ourselves up and feel a short-lived sense of control. But by latching onto the need to label others, you limit your reality to a frail, inflexible frame. Remember the quote, “When you point at someone, there’s always three fingers pointing back at you.” When you hate on others to make yourself feel better, you’re really just hating on yourself. Focusing on others’ shortcomings is a shortcut to treating the symptoms of your own insecurity.
The good news is, the inverse is also true: boosting others up, boosts your self worth. Be kind to others and try to appreciate their positive traits. This way you turn off your internal ranking system, and subconsciously start feeling more positive about yourself. They’re cool, you’re cool, and we are all figuring this out together. When you adopt this attitude, people can sense you’re coming from a non-judgmental place, and they’ll put their guard down. From there, an amazing self-fulfilling prophecy of positivity unfolds.
“Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”—Buddha
4. Enjoy the Journey Not the Destination
The egocentric survival instinct to amass as much material wealth at any cost is persuasive. We are culturally brainwashed to buy into the “if-then” model of happiness. We’re sold “magic pills” for weight-loss, relationships, and success. Apps are designed to be addictive; yummy warm dopamine fires off in your brain everytime you get a notification; Now more than ever, we expect instant gratification. We want the gold at the end of the rainbow and forget to take in all the colors along the way.
“The really happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery when on a detour.” — Unknown
This may come as a surprise, but someday you and everyone you know will die; and when you do, you won’t be able to take your possessions with you. Your time and energy are too precious to waste on impressing other people. The number one regret people have on their death bed is, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” In the end, you are only truly competing with yourself. Embrace your current circumstances and embrace your self.
When you conquer yourself, all those external pleasantries will follow, but they will simply be the cherry on top of your already delicious sundae.