Our happiness isn't always in our hands. Sometimes it depends on the success of those around us, or the lack thereof. It might seem fairly obvious if I were to say that we compare ourselves to other people. I suspect we all know that on some level. But have you ever wondered why? And to what effect?
Social comparisons are a regular feature of psychological and sociological research. The earliest findings come from ancient poll enthusiast Herbert Hyman, who noted that our perception of our own status depends directly on the group to which we compare ourselves.
Since then, a number of researchers have filled out the nuances to Hyman's picture. Of these features, a small handful are worth our close attention.
We compare ourselves to those similar to us
The first comes from Leon Festinger (of cognitive dissonance fame), who placed a heavy emphasis on our comparisons to those who we perceive as similar to us. Similarity is a hugely influential factor in who we surround ourselves with. It is also, apparently, a hugely influential factor in our self-evaluations. Later research identified that even one distinguishing feature might be enough to satisfy our need to compare ourselves with those similar to us, with the obvious corollary that outside of a single distinguishing similarity, there might be nothing particularly similar between us and the person we compare ourselves to.
We seek 'objective' measures for our comparisons
Festinger also theorised that we seek non-social, or 'objective' measures upon which to base our comparisons. Performance at a task, for example, or resources. This appears to have stood the test of time. But of course, without social context, such comparisons can quickly become problematic. Another's performance in a task might be much more impressive than your own, if they have a history of training for it, for example. Resources are more easily traced to socio-economic status than to any particular actions an individual might take. Such comparisons, despite their superficially 'objective' logic, are often quite flawed.
We change our definition of comparison if it gets too hard
Our last take-away from Festinger forms the basis of his eventual work on cognitive dissonance. If we find ourselves increasing in distance from whomever we are comparing ourselves to, we'll act to either change our own mind or the minds of others about how meaningful that distance is. That is to say, if we are failing to conform to the group to which we're comparing ourselves, we'll do our best to change the definition of what uniformity might mean. If we're not as good at something as everyone else, maybe we'll decide that thing isn't quite as important as we thought it was.
The outcomes of our comparisons determine our satisfaction
Perhaps most importantly, our social comparisons are a vital contributor to our well-being. Lifelong social comparison researcher Abraham Buunk has spent an enormous proportion of his literatary output making this very clear to us, summarised in his most recent book chapter linked above:
[we] try to re-establish or maintain well-being and self-esteem by ... contrast ... [B]oth correlational and experimental research in different settings ... shows ... what consequences these comparisons have on affect, mood, well-being and self-esteem.
And these dynamics are both straight-forward, but also rather surprising.
Upward and downward comparisons
The most influential research has been, very topically, on the more oppressive forms of social comparison, and the effect of this on our wellbeing.
We make downward comparisons as a means of feeling better about ourselves---looking to individuals or groups who are worse off as a means of making our present situation seem preferable.
We make upward comparisons too, however, which often have the effect of lowering our self-regard. When we compare ourselves to people we perceive as superior or otherwise better than ourselves, it's often to sharpen our instinct towards self-improvement. We want to believe ourselves to be comparable to this superior group, and find ourselves moving towards this attractive target. But, in the process, we might find ourselves lacking.
Unsurprisingly, then, in our downward comparisons, we often highlight the differences between ourselves and the group we're comparing ourselves to. In our upward comparisons, we're more likely to concentrate on the similarities.
But, naturally, it's possible to find similarities in our downward comparisons and differences in our upward comparisons. Here, we see quite different, and perhaps troubling dynamics.
If those around us are more successful or accomplished than us, and we concentrate on how different we are to them, we tend to feel ambitious, but also quite stressed. If those around us are less successful, and we concentrate on the similarities, we tend to find ourselves more comfortable with a lack motivation. Too much of either, and we might find ourselves stuck.
It would be straightforward enough to draw lines between these findings and the various vicissitudes of social media, or high school dramas. But this isn't just true at the individual level. These dynamics can be found among groups too. For example, in romantic relationships, happy couples tend to see themselves as superior to the relationships around them and pride; joy and happiness ensues. Unhappy couples have a greater tendency to feel their relationships are worse than average and will feel anger, envy and frustration. A comparison
So, I suppose, be aware of who you surround yourself with. People who place value on different things to you might perform less well in areas you care about, encouraging you to underachieve. But, surround yourself with too many overachievers and you might just find yourself overwhelmed with the distance between you and them. Balancing our perceptions of similarities and differences is a delicate dance between ambition and anxiety, but only you can decide how much of each you'd like to take on.