Do we have Comparitis?

comparing yourself

Before I start off, it’s time for a quick announcement/apology/random news: These lines are reaching you from my shiny new laptop! Since my laptop broke back in January, I’ve done pretty much 0 writing – obviously much to the disappointment of all of you, my loyal reader(s) (hi mum!). But here’s the good news: Now that I have a new laptop I made a deal with myself to blog at least once a week. And I’m sure I will keep this great resolution for at least a week. If not two.

So, please hold me to it.

Seriously. Hold me to it, Mum.

Ok, moving on.

The other day I met up with a friend for coffee. She had signed off Facebook a few weeks earlier and was kind of out of the loop on upcoming events, people’s whereabouts etc. I asked her why she had decided to quit Facebook and she told me that she constantly felt like she had to measure up to other people.

I see where she’s coming from. It’s no secret that there’s a fair bit of image crafting going on across social networks. People carefully select which news or photos to share, and often create a better version of their lives online. “Hey there, here’s my ultra-healthy, locally sourced meal that I made from scratch. I also run marathons and have abs as hard as rock. I would also like you to know that I volunteer and recycle and help poor children in Africa. I am a free spirit and butterfly farts are all I need to be happy, but I also still have enough money to go on really cool vacations 3 times a year. Beach selfieeeee!”

Now, I’m not pointing any fingers here. I’m guilty of this too. In fact, most of you are probably only reading this article because I posted it on Facebook. While some of you might roll your eyes “oh great, another person with a blog, how original”, others will (hopefully) enjoy reading it. But there may also be people who’ll think “why do I never have time to blog, I wish I had as much time as Eva” (I am obviously in the mood to flatter myself).

Well, fret not! Apparently, it’s all too common for people of my generation to suffer from…Comparitis (dun-dun-duuuuuuuun).

What’s Comparitis, you may ask?

Compartis is a fancy way of referring to the concept social comparison, a theory originally developed by Leon Festinger in 1954. Social comparison theory says that we determine our own self-worth based on how we compare to other people, leading us to constantly evaluate ourselves across various aspects of personal and social life (looks, wealth, success, etc) (Psychology Today, 2014)

So,1954 – obviously that’s waaaay before Facebook and Twitter. Although many people attribute comparitis to social networks and Generation Y, social comparison has existed for a long time. Social networks just make comparison much easier because we put our lives on display.

Festinger (1954) developed nine hypotheses to show that humans compare themselves to others in order to inform their circumstances, reduce uncertainties and define themselves (For brevity’s sake, I have listed only five of the hypotheses below, but feel free to do some further reading here)

1. Humans have a need to evaluate their needs and abilities objectively.

2. If there are no objective means available, people evaluate themselves in comparison to other people and their surroundings.

3. We tend to compare ourselves with people who have similar opinions and abilities.

4. Humans tend to place value on improving their abilities, i.e. getting better at things, whereas we don’t put as much emphasis on having “better” opinions.

5. Nevertheless there are restraints that make it impossible for some people to improve their abilities. You can (in theory) always change your opinion though.

He also argues that communication between people primarily serves to reach agreements within groups. This uniformity of opinion is caused by (1) group dynamics and (2) the human need for confirmation of having an “accurate” opinion and preference. Moreover, when people in our social groups agree on certain things, it helps us shape and validate our social reality. Nevertheless, Festinger interprets social comparison as a means of self-enhancement.

So, enough about the why. How do we compare ourselves? Most people usually compare themselves by looking at people who they consider to be either below or above their skill set/circumstances. This is called downward and upward comparison. What is downward comparison? Ever had a really shite day and then suddenly thought “At least my life doesn’t suck as bad as John’s”?! (…and did it make you feel better)? Well, this is a downward comparison. Great for you, but sucks for John!

Upward comparisons are not as straight-forward. It can go both ways. They can make you feel better or worse. We usually use upward comparisons with people that we consider better than ourselves at something – a skill, ability, social standing, looks, you name it. This type of comparison can make us feel terrible when we feel we don’t measure up, but it can also make us feel better. How? For one, it can make you want to improve and actually get better. In an experiment, Taylor and Lobel (1989) showed that breast cancer patient’s self-esteem was increased when they learned about breast cancer survivors, mainly because it gave them hope.

To sum up, most researchers agree that social comparison is based on the need to evaluate ourselves, but also to reinforce or maintain positive self-images.

So, comparing yourself isn’t all bad then.

Except of course when comparison overrides objective self-assessment. And this unfortunately happens all too often. The study Neighbours as Negatives: Relative Earnings showed that most of our income satisfaction depends on comparison. For example, if I make 35k a year and my friends make 30k, I’m more likely to be content with my income than compared to a situation in which I make 40k but my friends make 50k.

And then of course, there’s competition.

Sigh. I don’t know about you but I certainly know a fair share of ultra-competitive people who just need to be better at everything. But why compete?

If we agree with Festinger’s theory that one central process of social comparison is comparing ourselves upward in order to improve our abilities and decrease differences between ourselves and others who we deem superior in certain/all aspects of life,  this push to be better can lead to us having better abilities. Competitive behaviour then is a means to protect one’s own superiority (in comparison to others).

Fellow runners, or other people who play sports, understand this concept perfectly. If someone is ahead of you in a race, you try to catch up, and when you do, you try to put as much distance between you and the other person. Because you want to win.

The question is of course – can you win at life? And if so, what’s the prize?

So, let’s look at social networks again. For people suffering from comparitis they can be very frustrating. Why? Because no one will post anything that will allow downward comparison. “Oh, shucks, I’m going to jail” or “oooh damn, another unwanted pregnancy” is rarely something I read in my newsfeed. Instead I only read about great stuff happening to people. And when I have great stuff going on in my life too, I’m genuinely happy for people. But if I’m in a dark place mentally or emotionally, I tend to feel like a waste of space. And what’s more – I feel envy.

As my favourite philosopher Alain de Botton says:

“…if there is one dominant emotion in modern society, that is envy. And it’s linked to the spirit of equality. Let me explain. I think it would be very unusual for anyone here…to be envious of the Queen of England. Even though she’s much richer than any of you are. And she’s got a large house. The reason we don’t envy her is because she’s too weird…We can’t relate to her. She speaks in a funny way. She comes from an odd place…And when you can’t relate to somebody, you don’t envy them…The closer two people are, in age, in background, in the process of identification, the more there is a danger of envy — which is incidentally why none of you should ever go to a school reunion — because there is no stronger reference point than people one was at school with. But the problem, generally, of modern society is that it turns the whole world into a school. Everybody is wearing jeans, everybody’s the same. And yet, they’re not. So there is a spirit of equality, combined with deep inequalities.”

And there you have it. The reason why our generation seems to be especially plagued by comparitis is because we live in a world where we can connect so easily with peers who all present carefully crafted versions of themselves. So of course it is normal to feel frustrated when you think yourself equal to your friends, yet feel like you don’t have the same access to all the awesome things or experiences that they have.

What’s the solution? Social comparison seems to be ingrained in our behaviour, so perhaps there is no solution but to be aware that comparitis is ‘normal’. Whenever I feel envy creeping up, I try to use my friends as inspiration. Everyone likes to get inspired, and if you have a friend who’ve already been there and done that, they can give you lots of tips. So…





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