July 13, 2024

Shortcuts: Comparing Yourself to Others: It’s Not All Bad

“TO compare is to despair,” the saying goes, and I’ve generally found it to be true. If I try hard enough (and sometimes even if I don’t) I can usually find someone who performs better or has more. And I can feel bad about it.

I objectively know that my own life is pretty good, but this upward comparison, as economists and psychologists call it, can somehow dim my own accomplishments. “Comparison is rife with danger, but it’s understandable why we do it,” said Heidi Grant Halvorson, a social psychologist. “We’re human beings and we naturally seek information.”

One way to get information, Ms. Halvorson said, is to turn to experts. Another way is to look at those around us.

And often what we see in our neighborhood or community is more important, in our minds, than anything else. Economic studies have shown, for example, that once they make a certain amount of money to cover basics, most people care more about relative, rather than absolute, income.

That is, most of us feel better if we make, say, $100,000 if the majority of our neighbors make $75,000 than if we earn $150,000 when most of our friends bring in $200,000.

One such study, “Neighbors as Negatives: Relative Earnings and Well-Being,” published in 2005 in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, found that “higher earnings of neighbors were associated with lower levels of self-reported happiness.”

The paper cites the oft-quoted saying by the economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill: “Men do not desire to be rich, but to be richer than other men.”

Erzo F. P. Luttmer, the author of the study and an associate professor of economics at Dartmouth College, said in a telephone interview that neighbors “influence what you think is a normal lifestyle, and you struggle to keep up.”

We’re often told to avoid comparing, but this is both difficult and not necessarily wise advice in all situations.

Ms. Halvorson, who is also author of the book “Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals” (Hudson Street Press, 2010), said we needed to think about why we were seeking the information. “Upward comparison can be punishing and make you feel terrible,” she said. “But you can also look upward to learn.”

If we feel bad, for example, about how well we just played in a game of tennis, we can check out those who play worse to make ourselves feel better, and avoid watching the semi-pros on the other court.

Or, if we believe that we can improve and learn by looking at others — and not just feel inferior about playing worse — then we can watch the better players.

There are also pros and cons to comparing ourselves with people worse off than ourselves. It’s not good if we’re just trying to gain a sense of superiority or avoiding challenging ourselves to do better.

But such downward comparisons can remind us of our own fortune. They can also help us when we think about the things we regret but we cannot change.

As part of a study co-written by Isabelle Bauer, a clinical psychologist in Toronto, 104 people of various ages were asked to complete a survey about their greatest misgivings — choosing the wrong career path, or failing to make amends to someone who passed away or marrying the wrong person.

The study found that those who felt that other people had regrets that were “more” or “much more” severe reported an increase in positive emotions when reassessed four months later compared with those who said that other people’s regrets were “less” or “much less” severe.

“If you can’t change what you did, then downward social comparison helps us gain perspective,” Ms. Bauer said. “And those people are able to move on and re-engage in other goals. If you compare upward about things you can’t change, then you seem to just feel stuck.”

But those who compared themselves downward and had the opportunity to do something about their regrets didn’t feel any more positive over time, she said.

Comparisons can also serve as a reality check, particularly when speaking about money.

My colleague Ron Lieber, for example, wrote about NetworthIQ, a site that allows people to anonymously post their own net worth. Would we be happier and healthier, he asked readers, if we knew the net worth of our friends, colleagues and neighbors?

E-mail: shortcuts@nytimes.com

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=6d12685834ce197fcf563a76a104d09a

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