But constant comparison only makes us feel like failures: No matter what, there will always be someone who’s at least one step ahead us; and the perfect job, spouse, salary, etc., will always remain elusive.
Elizabeth Weil recently interviewed University of California psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky about this phenomenon for The New York Times. In her article, “Happiness Inc.,” she writes that, “As Dr. Lyubomirsky has found in her lab (and many of us find around the office or at a bar), unhappy people compare a lot and care about the results.”
In a study, “Hedonic consequences of social comparison,” Lyubomirsky and her co-author Lee Ross from Stanford University looked at how happy and unhappy people respond differently to feedback, both positive and negative, on a teaching exercise. Happy participants’ self-confidence was enhanced by positive feedback, no matter if they also learned that their peers got better results. On the other hand, confidence levels for unhappy people soared when they received positive feedback alone, but only increased minimally when they learned their peers did better. Most surprisingly, they found that:
The overall pattern of results that emerged was striking in that unhappy participants showed greater increases in self-confidence after learning that they did poorly but their peer did even worse than after learning that they did very well but their peer did even better whereas happy participants showed smaller increases in self-confidence in the latter condition than in the former condition.
Here’s a chart showing the results of the experiment:
While modest comparison to other people makes for healthy competition, those who are consumed by peer comparison are simply choosing to live an unhappier life.