Social comparison is a risky game – it can make you feel content with yourself, it can burst your drive to self-develop, or it can throw you into the pit of sadness and leave you severely depressed. According to the social comparison theory hypothesized by psychologist Leon Festinger, humans have a natural drive to constantly self-evaluate, and very commonly, this is based on comparing their abilities to the ones of those around them. measuring the level of your happiness or contentment by comparing your achievements to those of others sounds far from appealing to many, and thus people are encouraged to avoid social comparison. There are many tips and strategies which promise to free people of the toxic habit of comparing themselves to others, as many find this an extremely difficult task. However, should we really give up on this type of behavior completely, or is there some good that may come from it?
What ought to be first noted about social comparison is that it provides information. By comparing yourself to others, you come to understand your social rank better. However, the emotions that arise from comparing yourself to those around you depend on the way you choose to employ social comparison.
Upward and downward comparison
Naturally, social comparison has a different effect according to the people you compare yourself with. Upward comparison represents the instance when you compare yourself with those who you consider to be superior in certain aspects. You may do this in order to have a source of inspiration and motivation, but this type of comparison may lead you to the trap of devaluating your self-worth and leave you anxious and depressed. In the case of downward comparison, you compare yourself with those who you believe to be inferior. This may provide a boost of confidence and may make you feel more content with your achievements, but engaging in this type of behavior in the long run will not aid your self-improvement and may even lead to narcissistic tendencies.
These aspects considered, some may be tempted to avoid any kind of social comparison and mind their own business, trying to do their best in order to achieve their goals, without being disturbed by the progress of those around them. However, if practiced correctly, social comparison can become a useful tool in the process of self-development. Thus said, how can we turn social comparison into something beneficial?
1. Don’t compare yourself to paragons
Comparing yourself to those who you perceive to be superior on certain aspects can, indeed, make you feel more motivated to make efforts in order to self-develop. However, the line between the outcome of feeling motivated and becoming depressed when witnessing the dimension of others’ success compared to yours is a fine one. One key factor that you should consider in order to manipulate the desired outcome is choosing the right comparison target. Even though we are talking about upward comparison, chosen in order to self-improve, the people you compare yourself to should not be paragons.
Research conducted by Sebastian Deri, Shai Davidai, and Thomas Gilovich, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology analyzed the factors why people were unsatisfied with their social lives, believing that those of others were richer and more active. They found out that this pessimistic view was partly due to participants comparing themselves with unrealistic targets, the comparison being made to the most sociable people they knew. Another study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that people have the tendency of comparing themselves to the best in other domains as well. In the case of both studies, when people compared themselves with more realistic targets, the negative feelings went away.
2. Remember your goals
When you compare yourself with people who you believe to be superior or have a seemingly perfect life, you may unconsciously begin to desire things that escaped your sphere of interest before. This is because of a pursuit for validation, which is the result of the action of the brain regions that seek and deliver social rewards. When you receive positive feedback from others or you find similarities with your peers, these regions come to activate dopamine. This is why we become unsatisfied when we realize people around us have things we lack, even though these things were originally of no interest to us. Thus said, in order to forbid negative feelings to spur when making social comparisons, we need to develop a stable sense of self, remember our goals and make comparisons related only to our domains of interest, practice which will not allow us to feel behind in life.
3. Consider the context
You have a realistic comparison target in mind and you are focused only on the achievements related to your domain of interest. However, you notice that, although you are similar, that person is far more advanced than you in the respective field. The next thing you have to consider is the context that leaded to their achievement. When did they begin to invest time and energy in order to attain that objective? How constant were they? What did they have to sacrifice for the sake of success in that respective field? How many lucky opportunities have they encountered?
Most of the time, we are unable to determine these variables. Or, in the cases we possess these pieces of information, we may forget to keep them in consideration. Thus said, we should always remember to focus on our progress, comparing our present and past selves in order to observe the improvements we make, while maintaining the comparison target as a source of inspiration.
4. Seek friendly competition
Social comparison can turn extremely helpful when it takes the form of friendly competition. People who use social networks in order to motivate themselves to have a better performance become highly efficient at performing certain tasks, as the “social ratchet effect” leads to an individual’s activity to generate more activity among the others in the same group. This is called the proxy-model and its effectiveness comes from demonstrating the action’s possibility. When individuals compare themselves to similar others who manage to have a great performance on certain tasks and are able to witness their progress, knowing that it is not due to luck or other external factors, they are more likely to push themselves to achieve more because they can determine the likelihood of success more easily.
A study conducted on people’s effectiveness at improving levels of physical activity showed that this type of friendly competition was far more efficient than social support, which had a negative effect. When comparing themselves with similar others, people could evaluate whether they had a satisfactory performance according to their potential and set new goals. On the other hand, social support was only a source of encouragement and, because there was no social comparison, people were not motivated enough to perform better.
5. Practice gratefulness
If you still find it difficult to refrain from allowing negative emotions to overcome you when you make social comparisons, practicing gratefulness will surely aid you in your quest to turn the emotions generated by social comparison into something beneficial, which will lead to self-improvement. This is because, among the many benefits generated by this practice, gratitude leads to better recognizing the obtained positive outcomes and also reduces resentment and envy. Although gratitude is a spontaneous feeling for some, anyone can deliberately cultivate it. Thus said, if you fear that comparing yourself to others will not activate your drive to self-improve, but leave you more unsatisfied with what you have already achieved, practicing gratefulness is one of your best allies.
On the whole, there are three key factors that should be kept in mind in order for the social comparison to lead to positive outcomes:
- The comparison target should be similar
- The dimension of the comparison should be relevant
- The controllability of the dimension should be taken into account
All these things considered, I believe that refraining from social comparison is a waste of a resource that could aid our self-development, and learning how to employ it wisely is a better alternative.