Evaluating ourselves is an innate human behavior, but when you evaluate yourself by making comparisons to others, it can be misleading and harmful to your flourishing. In this episode, Craig discusses the pros and cons of social comparison and how social media can make the problems of social comparison worse.
Positive and negative cues:
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In this episode of Live Well and Flourish, you’ll learn about social comparison and how it can harm and sometimes help your flourishing.
Welcome to Live Well and Flourish, where I help you understand what it means to live a flourishing life. I'm your host, Craig Van Slyke. If you're ready to think beyond material and external success, if you're ready to take control of who you are and the kind of life you live, if you're ready to flourish, this is the podcast for you.
Think about the last time you saw an acquaintance posting about some significant accomplishment, such as a big promotion. Now think about how that made you feel. You might have felt happy for them, but you may have also felt just a little pang of jealousy or maybe resentment, tinged with this nagging thought that they might be doing better than you are. Or maybe you felt just a little superior if you’ve already surpassed their accomplishment. You, my friend, experienced social comparison.
The desire to evaluate ourselves is an innate, basic human drive. Sometimes that evaluation is internal to yourself, comparing your current state to some desired state, but the evaluation often involves comparing ourselves to others. This sort of evaluation is known as social comparison.
Social comparison, like a lot of things, can be a force for good or for evil … well, maybe not evil, but certainly bad for your flourishing. It’s really hard to escape social comparison, especially if you spend any time on social media. I’ll talk more about social media and social comparison later.
Let’s start with how social comparison hurts your flourishing. We’ve all experienced times when comparing ourselves to others led to feelings of inadequacy, lowered self-esteem, and even a vague dissatisfaction with life generally. For me, this sometimes happens when I scroll through LinkedIn. On LinkedIn, I’m connected with a lot of very accomplished people in my field. So, it’s not unusual to see someone celebrating a publication in a top journal, or passing some citation count milestone. (Citation counts are how often published papers reference a paper of yours. It’s a pretty important measure in my world.) So, when I sometimes see one of my friends posting about publishing a paper in a top-tier journal I almost immediately feel a weird mix of happy for them, a little bit jealous, and a little bit bummed out that I didn’t have similar news to share.
Now, I’m a pretty good researcher with a bunch of papers and some of them were in really good journals, but some of my friends are among the very best in the world. So me comparing myself to them is kind of like a moderately successful writer getting bummed out because they don’t sell as many books as Danielle Steele or Dean Koontz. I know it’s pretty unreasonable for me to feel inadequate, but it’s really hard to tamp down that feeling.
What’s especially damaging is that negative social comparison can sometimes make you question your choices. For me, I start to “What if” my decision to spend a decade in academic administration. I start asking myself, “What if I had stayed a professor and worked more on my research? Maybe I’d be publishing tons of articles in top journals.” Of course, this is counterproductive thinking. You can’t unring the bell of your past choices.
Social comparison can also cause you to re-evaluate your accomplishments downward. It can take the shine off of significant achievements. This can be a huge problem. Social comparison effectively moves the standard of judgment from your prior state (before the accomplishment) to someone else’s state. For example, if you’re really happy about your promotion to manager, but then you see a friend who became a vice president, you start to compare your accomplishment not on the basis of your previous position, but on their fancy new job. This reframing is really bad, in part because it makes your point of comparison something over which you had no control. This is contrary to flourishing.
So far, I’ve been talking about upward social comparison - comparing yourself to someone who might be seen as somehow better off than you. We also engage in downward social comparison, which is comparing yourself to someone you see as less well off than you. By the way, “well off” can be taken several ways … more or less successful, happy, financially stable, whatever. Downward social comparison can also be detrimental to flourishing by giving you a feeling of superiority or a false sense of accomplishment. It’s great to feel good about yourself, but such feelings are often fleeting, especially when they're based on something like downward social comparison. But more importantly, you're kind of taking mental credit for something that you didn’t have a hand in. Your actions and hard work might be responsible for your current state, but they had nothing to do with the other person’s state, so it's just a bad point of comparison.
So far, I’ve focused mostly on accomplishments, but social comparison can affect your perceptions of other things. Maybe you’ve heard the term FoMO … that’s F O M O. It’s short for fear of missing out. Recently, some of my friends went to the annual Apalachicola Oyster Festival (Apparently, it's really a blast, I don't know.) One of them posted a picture on social media of a group of them looking mighty happy while at the festival, their happiness might have had something to do with the beers in their hands … I’m not sure. That picture could easily have triggered a sense of missing out on a good time, coupled with some envy towards my friends. It could even make me wonder about my past choices that have me still working while they’re retired and off having fun. (By the way, I still work because I love what I do.) Social comparison can also involve comparing lifestyles, attitudes, opinions, and pretty much any aspect of your life.
So, comparing yourself to others can bring about all sorts of bad feelings, envy, resentment, low self-esteem, reduced satisfaction with your life, false sense of satisfaction, negative self-image, a lack of confidence, a sense of inadequacy … the list just goes on.
Social media is especially bad for negative social comparison, for a couple of reasons. First, people have a tendency to present positive aspects of their lives on social media, although they certainly post negative events as well. People post when they go out to a fancy restaurant, not when all they can afford is Denny’s. (No disrespect for Denny’s … I love their Moons over My Hammy.) People post when they get promotions, not when they get yelled at by the boss. They post when they get a paper accepted, not when they get one rejected for the fifth time. (Yes, that happens.) So, when you engage in social comparison through social media, you’re often making the comparison based on a rosier view of your friend than the true reality. It seems to me that this is kind of illogical and against sound reasoning, and therefore contrary to living a flourishing life.
Keep in mind that social media algorithms affect this by shaping the content you see. You don’t see every post, you only see what Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or whatever other platform you use wants you to see. This often feeds into the filtered, inaccurate version of reality that I just mentioned. The algorithms are built to maximize engagement, so they favor posts that bring about strong reactions, which can exacerbate social comparison. (Don't you just love that word, "exacerbate"? I like it.)
Before moving on to the benefits of social comparison (and there are some), I want to point out two particularly pernicious forms of social comparison … advertising and entertainment. Ads often portray a manufactured view of reality, such as the impossibly ripped, gorgeous people on television and films. If you’re selling cologne, you don’t wanna show an overweight middle-aged guy with thinning hair. We’re exposed to an almost endless deluge of media that shows a manufactured view of reality and it doesn’t exist outside the studio. It’s almost inescapable. Over time, this is tremendously harmful due to the tendency to compare ourselves to these idealized views, even when we don’t do so consciously.
Alright, enough with the bad, let’s talk about the good. Comparing yourself to others can be motivating and can spur growth and improvement. It can also be inspirational. Maybe a friend posts about a great new nonfiction book they’re reading. You admire your friend, so you read the book as well. This is a good thing (assuming it really is a good, useful book). One of the best things about social media is that at its best, it can create a sense of belonging and social connectedness which are important to your flourishing. I feel connected to people literally around the world due to our shared interests on social media. Social comparison can also act as a sort of vicarious learning, where you're learning by observing others, because you can observe how the choices and actions of others affect their outcomes. But you have to be careful here. Outcomes never have a single cause, and you aren’t privy to all of the possible choices people have made along the way that might have affected their outcomes. So, don’t take your social comparison-based conclusions about what decisions caused their success as being gospel.
You can use social comparison as motivation or inspiration by considering others who seem more successful in an area that you’re interested in. Observing someone who is more successful can be like a kick in the pants to work harder and strive for improvement. It's like your friend who just got promoted, instead of feeling resentful, you can use their success as inspiration to set your own goals and to work towards them. Just be careful. Don’t lament their success, see if you can learn from it.
Social comparison can also be used as a means of self-evaluation. (In fact, that’s what drives us to make social comparisons, as I mentioned in the beginning.) It can help us to understand our own abilities, opinions, and characteristics better by comparing ourselves to others. It's kind of like trying on different outfits in front of a mirror, you can see what works and what doesn't to some extent by observing others. Again, be careful. Remember, you’re only seeing part of the picture. The key is to look for things that you can control that will help you move towards your desired state.
Now, before you go out and start comparing yourself to everyone you meet, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, it's important to compare yourself to others in a fair and accurate way. Just because your friend got promoted doesn't mean you're a failure if you haven't been. Everyone has their own journey and success is defined differently for each of us. Remember, growth is based on where you are, not where someone else is.
Secondly, it's important to limit the amount of time you spend comparing yourself to others. You can do this by setting boundaries for social media use and being mindful of when you find yourself engaging in social comparison. I think going on a social media detox can be good for the soul.
And finally, instead of using social comparison as a tool for envy or self-criticism, try to use it as a tool for personal growth and self-evaluation. It's like a friendly game of "who can be the best version of themselves" but it's a game where everyone can win. Remember, it’s not a zero sum game. The success of others doesn’t reduce your success.
OK, let’s talk about three things you can do this week to avoid the pitfalls of social comparison.
First, and you probably knew this one was coming, cut back on social media. I’ll admit, this is a huge problem for me. Remember that social media is designed to hook you in, so the best way to reduce your social media is to just not log in at all. Unless you really need to have them, you should also consider deleting social media apps from your phone. This will make it harder to check social media, which should reduce your use by removing that particular negative cue from your environment. (By the way, I did an episode not long ago on positive and negative cues, you might wanna check it out. I'll put a link in the show notes.)
Second, remember that your journey is YOUR journey. Everyone’s path through life is different, everyone faces their own challenges and has their own successes and failures. Your value in the world isn’t based on how others contribute. Find your own path and make your unique contribution.
Third, your real success metric shouldn’t be based on others, it should be whether you’re being the best person you can be IN THIS MOMENT. Your past is behind you, you can’t change it. You can only make the best choices you can right now. Remember to focus on your purpose when making these choices, and you’ll not only flourish, you’ll make the world better.
Our closing quote comes from Seneca, and it’s one of my favorites. His wise words remind us to live our own lives, comparing ourselves only to ourselves, and seeking only our own praise. “Be your own spectator; seek your own applause.”
Until next time, be well my friends.
I produce Live Well and Flourish because of my dedication to helping others live excellent lives. I don't accept sponsorships and I don't want your money. The only thing I want is to help you and others flourish. If you've received some value from this episode, please share it with someone that might also benefit from listening. The best way to do that is to direct them to livewellandflourish.com
Until next time.