We are, in all the individualism (and egotism) we can display, still social animals – and it shows. We not only want to keep what is ours, even when it does not bring us pleasure anymore, we not only get used to new things (and largely, situations) real quick, we also constantly compare ourselves to those around us. The influence this has on our happiness is of the greatest.
“Keeping up with the Joneses” can negatively affect just about everyone, whether it’s the pretty rich or just normal you and me.
If I make only 500 a month, even if it’s enough to comfortably live by, it seems like a good salary only if my neighbors make as much or – preferably – less. Even if you are a millionaire, if the people around you obviously have more, it will not feel like you are truly rich.
Nowadays, this effect may be particularly strong, as you only have to turn on the TV or open a glossy magazine to be put before a view of how much and how good others – and not you yet? – have it.
With the world wide web, it is only too easy to find products that fascinate and appear to promise great happiness, and it is also ever more possible to get into circles of similarly-minded people. Whether they are looking for monetary riches or spiritual ones, believing that everyone can make it (and that the one who has more money wins) or that the world is going to hell in a handbasket because of those people chasing after nothing more than money, you are sure to find a like-minded group if only you browse around a little. It can make for potentially dangerous parochialism.
A psychological tendency like this can cut both ways, though:
As Ambrose Bierce put it, in a mean way, in “The Devil’s Dictionary” (see here on amazon.com) happiness can be the “agreeable sensation, arising from contemplating the misery of others.”
Indeed, you can keep comparing yourself to those who are richer and feel poor, or you can consider how fortunate you are as long as things go well enough; you may get happy just to have a job and struggle on, you may be motivated to get rich, find “automated income” and then live as you want, or to simply find ways to live the life you want without having to be rich in conventional, monetary terms. The world wide web is giving this latter diversity of possibilities particular salience, too.
So, if need be, you can find community and the comfort it provides – as well as go out and find new ideas, try out new things. As human life so often goes, it’s difficult to find a proper balance.
At the very least, knowing that there is a strong effect of social comparison can help deal with detrimental effects it is having. We can aim to realize when it is a self-defeating quest for money and status that only a very few can win, but will make the vast majority miserable.
Societies, whether politically or culturally, may also shift to place greater emphasis on different things: When all we value are money and things, there have to be losers. When a higher value comes to be placed on living well, there will still be losers, but unlike with riches and status, there is no limit to happiness and appreciation.
Hopefully, we will bring that to the point of realizing that a positive comparison – we are all alike – does not help when it just turns into group-think that does not hold up to the reality of life as part of Earth.
Living skillfully, to the best of one’s abilities, however, is good however you do it, and an appreciation of everyone contributing as best they can – in diversity and allowing for it – is even a necessity, faced with uncertain futures as we are.
For every individual person – you and me – this matter of social comparison boils down to this: do you think that you can win, make more money, gain higher status, be more beautiful, more successful, than everybody else? Or do you have something better to do?
Besides, even while we are heavily influenced by what we perceive as normal, as well as how others see us, we are ultimately motivated by other reasons as well. So, again: it helps to realize – and try to break – the effect of comparison when it gets too bad. Just to go on trying to find happiness, through the things that really make happy, is more important yet – those things often sound too simple, though, and we get caught up in what some have even labeled a “toxic” environment of advertisements and glossy pronouncements of wealth. These are a virtual world, though, and we really need to live our own lives, in reality.
The connections we draw in social comparison are only one case of interdependence between situations/practices and happiness – or what we think is connected, but actually may be less so. There are also relationships between us and the world we sometimes misunderstand – first of all, the simple fact that we are indeed a part of this world and that this relationship counts. Except when it doesn’t.