Have you ever heard of the Social Comparison Theory? If not, perhaps you’ve heard President Teddy Roosevelt’s old saying, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
According to Psychology Today, Social Comparison Theory states that “individuals determine their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others.”
In other words, if you were to look around and see that you’re ahead of almost everyone around you, you might feel pretty good about yourself. However, if you were to look around and find that nearly everyone was ahead of you, you’d feel behind, maybe even miserable and worthless.
Research shows that more than 10% of our daily thoughts involve making a comparison of some kind. It’s true! “Run your own race” might be a famous adage but, we as people cannot help but compare ourselves with other people. In fact, we’ve been trained to compare ourselves to other people since childhood.
More on this in a minute, but if you’ve ever heard something like “my son is in the 95th percentile for his height” or “my daughter’s test scores are in the 98th percentile for her age group,” then you’ve seen social comparison in action.
Now, when Social Comparison is used for good, people might find it to be a valuable tool for furthering their self-improvement. It could also prove to be an effective tool for self-motivation and positive self-image, but more often than not, Social Comparison is truly the thief of joy because it slowly erodes our happiness over time.
When we stop using Social Comparison as a tool for growth, we begin comparing ourselves to others in a negative way.
- Am I as pretty as she is?
- Am I as tall as he is?
- How does he or she make so much more money than I do?
- Are they smarter?
- More talented?
- Are they just all-around better than me?
Social Comparison is a slippery slope. Actually, it’s more like a deadly cliff with jagged rocks below, and if we stand the edge looking down for too long, we’re likely to slip and fall over.
How Social Comparison Manifests
Social Comparison is relatively common among most people, but how it manifests in each person is widely different. Some tend to silently judge the people that they compare themselves too. These folks tend to say things like, “If I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth, I’d have that job too,” or “They’ve had it so easy. They don’t know what it’s like to work a real job.”
Some people manifest overly competitive or superior attitudes, resulting in the proverbial chip on the shoulder. These people may think the whole world is out to get them or that the chips are always stacked against them.
Social Comparison results in a lot of different emotions and mindsets, many of which go unseen by others. According to Psychology Today,
“Most people have the social skills and impulse control to keep their standards for social comparison to themselves, and not to act on any envy or resentment spurred by comparison-making. But one’s true feelings may manifest in other ways.”
Social Comparison Theory was fathered in 1954 by psychologist Leon Festinger. Since then, more and more research shows that people who regularly compare themselves to the people around them are more likely to develop depression, feelings of isolation, guilt, or remorse. Some even knowingly or unknowingly engage in destructive behaviors such as compulsive lying in order to look better within a social group.
This behavior is not a new problem. We’ve all been trying to keep up with the Joneses since the dawn of time. But in today’s connected culture, Social Comparison is at an all-time high, and social media is making it harder and harder to avoid.
Social Comparison in Social Media
According to the Child Mind Institute,
“Evidence is mounting that there is a link between social media and depression. In several recent studies, teenage and young adult users who spend the most time on Instagram, Facebook and other platforms were shown to have a substantially (from 13 to 66 percent) higher rate of reported depression than those who spent the least time.”
In addition to these platforms being amazing tools for social connection and networking, many believe that they’re also to blame for negative Social Comparison.
Most people only share the highlight reels of their lives. Outings with friends, beautiful food and drinks, new cars, happy families, new jobs, successes and celebrations, world travel, adorable pets, and so on are all examples of the good things people share on social media.
Often, people refrain from sharing their bad days, their fights with loved ones, their Ramen dinners, their overdue bills—their low points.
I’m not suggesting that social media platforms are to blame or that we should stop using them, and I’m not suggesting that we all start airing our dirty laundry on the platforms either. I’m simply illustrating how social media has elevated the Social Comparison problem in society.
Who Are We Comparing Ourselves To?
Most of the time, people are compared to other people that share the same gender, similar age and background, and so on. These comparisons are helpful early in life when we use these benchmarks to gauge healthy growth and development.
Early in life, doctors use averages to measure a child’s physical and mental growth, to help identify any developmental concerns early on, and more. One of my nephews was in the 99th percentile for his height. In other words, he was incredibly tall for his age. This stat didn’t make him any better than any other boy his age. The comparison was only to show his growth as compared to most boys of that age. Harmless.
The problem is, as we grow up, we begin to compare ourselves to the people around us, even if the comparison is unreasonable. These types of comparisons lead to a lot of anxiety and stress, especially given that most people compare “up” rather than “down.”Typically, whe
n we compare ourselves to other people, we rarely compare ourselves to someone that we view as “below” ourselves. You can see the prevalence of this behavior in our fascination with celebrity life, and carefully-manicured social media feeds uploaded by social influencers.
We almost always compare ourselves to people that seem to be more successful than ourselves, and therein lies the problem.
We can’t help but admire people who appear to have perfect lives—people with beautiful houses, expensive cars, seemingly unlimited beach vacations, a million social followers, and excellent jobs. No matter where you are in life, there is always going to be someone who’s just a little further along, at least, by social comparison.
Hence the old saying, “keeping up with the Joneses.” As soon as your neighbor gets a new car, you find yourself itching for a new car too. You run down to the dealer and get a new car too, but then notice that Mr. and Mrs. Jones are getting a new inground pool.
It’s a vicious cycle.
But because we always tend to compare ourselves “up,” we’ll never be able to catch up with the Joneses. Every time we do, there will be another family of Joneses who moves in a block up the road. And if it’s not a literal neighbor just up the road, it’s a new colleague, a new competitor in your space, a new friend, someone.
The point is: if you’re always allowing comparison to rule your life, then there will always be someone new in your life that you’ll end up comparing yourself too.
No, we can’t catch up with the Joneses, and there will always be someone out there doing a little bit “better” than you, but we can break the cycle and overcome the Social Comparison trap.
How to Overcome Social Comparison
1. Focus on Being Thankful for What You Have
One of the most common answers for overcoming social comparison and negative thoughts is to start a gratitude journal. This practice can look different for everyone, but essentially, a gratitude journal is a place to write down 3-5 things (or more) every day that you’re grateful for or that makes you happy.
At the time of this writing, the Corona Virus (COVID-19) is threatening the nation, people’s lives, the economy, and more. There’s a lot to be pessimistic about, but taking a second to focus on gratitude can help find perspective and shift those negative thoughts. For example:
I’m thankful to have such an amazing job that allows me to work remotely if needed. Many hourly workers are losing their incoming streams due to temporary business closings aimed at increasing social distancing.
I’m thankful to be healthy and among one of the age groups least affected by the virus.
I’m thankful to live in America, one of the last places to see the spread of the virus. Being last allows us to evaluate the trends in other countries and come up with a better plan to keep our country safe.
When you truly take time to focus on gratitude, you can find that there is a lot to be thankful for. Many studies even show that gratitude can lower stress and anxiety and improve your overall health. According to PositivePsychology.com:
“Mental health researchers in the past few decades have established an overwhelming connection between gratitude and good health. Keeping a gratitude journal causes less stress, improves the quality of sleep, and builds emotional awareness.”
If you’re struggling with social comparison and tend to feel sad about your current standing in life, try starting a gratitude journal, but don’t just rattle off a few obvious, easy things like, “I’m grateful for my health, my house, and my job.”
If you do this every day, you’re going to have to dig deeper than that, which is a good thing. Try to reflect on things that you feel deeply thankful for. It may be difficult at first, but trust me, it’ll get more comfortable with practice, and you’ll feel so much happier in the process.
If you’re struggling with more than social comparison—if you feel depressed, have suicidal thoughts, or need someone to talk to, there is help. In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
2. Embrace an Abundance Mindset
Another thing you can do to overcome negative social comparison is to focus on an abundance mindset, which is the opposite of the scarcity mindset. The scarcity mindset is a self-limiting belief that tells us that there is not enough to go around.
For example, if someone gets a high paying job, the thought might be that there is one less high paying job you can have. If someone earns a raise, there is now less money for you to get. If someone buys something you’ve been longing and saving for, you might feel a surge of FOMO, like maybe you better hurry or there won’t be any left later.
In reality, however, there is often more than enough to go around, but when we focus on scarcity, we stop rooting for those around us. “Shoot, Jack just got a promotion! I wanted that job!” This type of thinking puts far too much focus on the negative and causes us to compare ourselves to other people.
“What does Jack have that I don’t have? That job should be mine!”
Instead, tell yourself that there is an unknowable number of opportunities for your future. There could be 100 better jobs or promotions that cross your path in the coming weeks or months. Congratulate Jack on his big new promotion.
Like gratitude, cheering on the people around us and helping them celebrate their success will make you feel better, too. After all, we win when the people around us win because a rising tide raises all ships.
An abundance mindset helps us think, “Ah, good for Jack! I’ll get the next one.” A scarcity mindset causes us to negatively compare ourselves to others and root against them, which only causes toxic, poisonous feelings, and resentment. If you want to overcome social comparison, focus on converting a scarcity mindset to one of abundance.
3. Fill the Gaps by Chasing Your Dreams
We’ve all felt it: an overwhelming sense of jealousy, envy, or FOMO. Where does that come from? I believe that jealously and envy come from gaps in our lives.
When we see someone else receive something or do something, and we feel negatively, it’s because we wanted that thing they have. Feeling jealous is okay because it means that you want more from life. Someone else got what you wanted, and now you need to go get it too.
The problem is, often we don’t take time to analyze our feelings. Maybe we feel envious, mad, or upset because someone got what we wanted. Don’t just accept these emotions. Instead, use them to identify the gaps in your life.
Are you jealous of a colleague’s promotion? Focus on what you could be doing to add value to the organization. Does a loving couple passing you on the sidewalk make you feeling sad? That’s your brain telling you that you long for a loving relationship. Does the successful entrepreneur you follow get you excited? Maybe you have a deep desire to start your own business.
Instead of comparing ourselves to others, we should be analyzing our emotions as a way to stay connected with what we want from life. What’s it matter what other people have if it’s not really what you want? It doesn’t!
I love the way an article on the Huffington Post put it:
“Use the comparison trigger of envy to your advantage. What does it tell you? Maybe something is missing in your life and its time for you to go for it.”
Yeah, maybe it’s time to go for it!
Social comparison is nothing new, and it’s not social media’s fault. Sure, exposure to vast networks of people can increase the opportunities we all have to compare ourselves to others negatively, but shutting down your Facebook account won’t help you stop comparing yourself to others.
Facebook or not, you’ll still compare yourself to your colleagues, the people at church, or the people down the street. I’ve read that limiting your exposure to social media can certainly help reduce negative or sad feelings caused by comparison, so I won’t argue that it can’t help.
I’m only suggesting that we need to overcome social comparison as a whole, not just quarantine it as best we can.
If you focus on sincere, meaningful gratitude, foster an abundance mindset, celebrate the people around you, and interpret your emotions as a way to fill the gaps in your life, you’ll be well on your way to living a happier, more fulfilled life.
I hope this article has helped you in a significant way. I always aim to provide excellent, useful content, but I’m not a trained mental health specialist.
If you’re experiencing depression, sadness, or suicidal thoughts, you’re not alone, and I encourage you to please seek help. There is no shame in feeling the way you do. Good mental health is vital and should not be avoided or hidden.
If you need help in the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.