The Disease of Comparison versus the benefits of relativity

I have heard mention on several occasions in recent months of the concept of the “Disease of Comparison” which on the surface seems like a very evolved way of looking at the world. Presumably this means that we can create a lot of dissatisfaction for ourselves if we are continually measuring ourselves by other people’s standards or achievements. I totally agree that such an approach to life can make us very unhappy indeed. Ideally, we would be so comfortable in our own skins that we have little regard for how other people “measure up”. Like all good maxims though, there is usually a flip side. Ie we turn it around and see if there is any benefit in comparing ourselves to others.

I am not defending this viewpoint but am reminded of the interesting fact when we are looking at wealth and life satisfaction. If we take a small low socio-economic community where everyone has, say two cows as their sole assets. It has been said that the person who has three cows will record greater life satisfaction than the others. Based on the fact that they own one cow more!

This got me thinking about the reasons behind this seemingly unaltruistic attitude.

 And it revealed not only a facet of natural human behavior but also a demonstration again, of one of the pillars of positive psychology that states that “Achievement” can contribute to greater well being – in this case, mental and emotional well being. I believe that as humans we are wired to compare ourselves to others to find where we fit in the world. From a young age, when we desperately want to fit in, we compare ourselves to make sure we are wearing the same clothes, listening to the same music, using the same language. As we get older, we are encouraged to “get ahead”. Get ahead of who? Other people of course. 

Now there are many of us who finally do come to realise that aiming to live a life that reflects our values is more important than being the best or winning the race. How can we get a sense of achievement if not to a certain degree by measuring our success against others? Yes we can beat our own times in sports, we can strive for goals that are set from within, but in many cases achieving excellence, or mastery is only defined by how many people we are better than.

So where does that leave us in that philosophical debate?  

We can strive to be the best versions of ourselves. To be compassionate, to exist without the need to prove ourselves, to live in the moment and never worry about other people’s failings, or be disappointed by their actions as we can only control our own actions and responses. Yet human nature has developed for survival and we are stuck with elements of behavior that make us just that – essentially human. So next time you feel encouraged or marginally better when you realise you are running that marathon with someone who is not feeling so good; or you look to see not how many people beat you but how many you beat, remind yourself that you are only being human.