See if you recognize yourself in this story: It's a sun-drenched day. My two-year-old daughter is swinging before me on our town playground. She whizzes through the air for tens of minutes, the wind tugging at her corkscrew curls, giggles spilling out of her like a bird chattering at the dawn of a spring morning.
She quiets only when a man and his son approach the swings. Under her intense gaze, the man lifts the boy into the rubber seat and elevates him high into the air.
"Whee!" the boy squeals when his father releases him. "More!"
The father pushes hard, causing the swing set to shake. The boy flies so high, his torso becomes horizontal to the ground. I wonder if he might flip clear over the top.
My daughter cranes around to look at me, her face contorted. "Mommy, higher," she says. "Higher!"
I try with all my might.
"Higher!" my daughter yells, looking at the boy soaring beside her. "Higher!"
I push and shove and grunt. My arms start to burn. I feel sweat breaking out on my forehead. Still, my daughter's only halving the height of the boy beside her.
"I'm sorry, sweetie," I say after many minutes. "This is as good as it gets."
With that, she bursts into tears.
The Social Comparison Scourge
Although it's been a while since you frequented a swing set, I bet you recognize yourself in my daughter's reaction. Especially if you're a millennial. As Paul Angone says in 101 Secrets for Your Twenties:
"Obsessive Comparison Disorder is the smallpox of our generation."
How could it not be, given the omnipresence of social media?
All these social comparisons are our great undoing. They not only block us from pursuing the work we'd find meaningful, they make us more likely to experience all sorts of negative emotions including:
- Unmet cravings
- Lying to protect self and others
I don't want these to be my daughter's reality. That's why the swingset episode hit me like a gut punch. The only way she'll learn to quit the comparisons is if I learn to stop them myself.
I turned to the research to find out. And boy did it come through.
1. Don't Use Social Comparisons To Make Yourself Feel Good
As I wrote in I'm Awesome. Except Next to You. And You. And You, social comparisons have an upside. They can bring us joy...IF we're the one on the swings flying higher than the kid next to us. In fact, they feel so good we get hooked on them as our source of self-worth:
Feeling crappy about your hair? Dig up that horrid Facebook photo of your friend on a humid day.
Feeling upset about your drudge job? Think of your buddy who hasn't landed a single ounce of paying work.
Feeling icky about your breakup? Check out your friend's tweets about her loser boyfriend's antics.
The problem is, using this feel-good strategy comes with a heavy price: we end up feeling badly about ourselves most of the time.
"Frequent social comparisons may, in the short-term, provide reassurance. But in the long-term they may reinforce a need to judge the self against external standards." - Dartmouth Professor Judith White and colleagues
In other words, comparing yourself with others becomes an addiction. You end up scrambling around Facebook, desperate for a hit of "I'm rocking life compared to that person," but in the process you're exposed to a whole lot of "wow, that person is doing so much better than me."
2. Find Happiness
This may be a bit chicken-and-egg, but if you can "find happiness," you may be less tempted to look at the boy swinging next to you. And less affected if you do.
Studies show that unhappy people make more frequent comparisons and take them more to heart, compared to happy people.
Of course we could fill 15 million posts on the question of how to "find happiness," but I'll stick with the psychology-based answer I strongly believe: lasting happiness comes not from fleeting pleasures, but from structuring your life around endeavors that are personally meaningful and that frequently plunge you into the state of flow. That's why I advocate for creating a work life filled with purpose.
3. Practice Mindfulness
This one gets a bit deep: We can either view ourselves subjectively (from the inside out) or objectively (looking at ourselves as if we're an object). People who do the latter engage in more frequent social comparisons, according to research, and thus feel less content.
"Viewing one’s self objectively cuts one off from mindful experience, resulting in mindlessness. Not only are we holding the self still, in order to view it objectively, but also we are holding still the dimension on which we are making the comparison. In a mindless state, a person automatically accepts the positive or negative consequences of a social comparison." - White and colleagues
The best way to counteract mindlessness is to practice mindfulness, such as by meditating.
If you're new to mindfulness meditation - an approach that makes no spiritual claims and has been shown to decrease stress, anxiety, and blood pressure - Jon Kabat-Zinn's book Wherever You Go, There You Are is a great starting point.
Researchers note that making social comparisons may cause mindlessness, so you'll need to reconnect with a mindful viewpoint daily to keep things in check.
"In a mindful state, the same social comparison information can have a completely different meaning, and thus different consequences." - White and colleagues.
4. Set Internal Standards for Self-Worth
Finally, getting clear on what you care about, then prioritizing your life around those values takes the punch out of social comparisons.
"People who are uncertain of their self-worth, who do not have clear, internal standards, will engage in frequent social comparisons." - White and colleagues
In other words, if you believe that "success" results from meeting YOUR goals - not the goals of your parents, friends, teachers, or "society" at large - you'll be less likely to succumb to the agony of social comparisons.
Thinking this way is a lifelong process, of course, but you can start the process today. And you should.
Because when it comes down to it, a day on the swings is always better than a day stuck at home. Regardless of who's swinging beside you.
So it all comes down to four steps. Four tangible, doable, why-not-make-these-a-priority-because-life-stinks-if-you-let-comparisons-rule-your-existence steps:
Step #1: Don't use social comparisons to make yourself feel good. More often they'll make you feel bad.
Step #2: Spend more time in activities that give you a sense of flow and that are personally meaningful.
Step #3: Set aside ten minutes (or more!) to meditate daily.
Step#4: Identify your personal priorities and work toward them, regardless of what others say you "should" do.
What do you think? Can we do it? Our futures depend on the answer.
White, J. B., Langer, E. J., Yariv, L., & Welch, J. (2006). Frequent social comparisons and destructive emotions and behaviors: The dark side of social comparisons. Journal of Adult Development, 13, 36–44.
Photo Credit: Taylor.McBride™