Insight Therapy

Psychologically-informed reflections on how we interact.

Your Happiness and Health Don't Belong to You

Why the quality of your health, happiness and sex life depends on your neighbors

Here is a brief thought experiment (borrowed from Tim Wadsworth): think of three or four of adjectives to describe yourself. What did you come up with? Perhaps terms like: generous, smart, funny, loyal, attractive...OK. Now try to imagine yourself living your life alone on a desert island with no contact with other people. Look again over those traits you thought up. Do they have any meaning in this situation? Not so much. It turns out that most of the features we attribute to ourselves are meaningful only in a social context. Our self-identity questions (who am I, what am I?) are in fact questions about social identity (who am I, what am I, in the context of a group, as compared to others?). Take a person’s social world away, and the person vanishes.

The psychologist Leon Festinger, who worked in the fifties, was among the first to study the mechanism of social comparison as one of the foundations of human psychology. According to Festinger, we compare ourselves to others out of a desire to know the truth about ourselves. Such comparisons are useful because objective indices are not always available and are not as important to our lives as social ones. It is less important for you to know how much you weigh (an individual, objective index) than to know if you weigh more or less than those around you (a relational, social index).

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Social comparative dynamics permeate our lives far and wide. Take for example the issue of money. Let's say you're coming to work this morning and your boss surprises you with a $100 gift. How would you feel? Safe to bet you would feel good. After all, you’ve just received free money. But then it turns out your work colleagues who arrived five minutes earlier received $1000 gifts. How would you feel then? Not good. Why? The original result remains. You’ve earned $100 unexpectedly this morning for nothing. Yes, but those around you earned $1000. Relative to them, you lost. Comparative loss (I got $900 less than others) overrides absolute gain (I got $100)

Another example: Consider the two situations below:

A. You get $50,000 a year while others get $25,000.

B. You get $100,000 while others get $200,000.

Which situation would you prefer? According to the research, most people prefer situation A, although this preference involves giving up $50,000 in absolute income per year. Why? Because we measure ourselves, first and foremost, in relation to others.

The British researcher Chris Boyce from the University of Warwick provided further, recent support for this insight with an interesting study examining data on income and life satisfaction in more than 10,000 participants over seven years. Boyce and his team found that people were happy with their income if it was higher than their neighbors’. These findings help explain why the increase in average income in the West in recent decades has not been accompanied by a rise in happiness (a phenomenon known as “The Easterlin Paradox” and backed by many studies). What determines our level of happiness is not our absolute income but our income rank. So long as my neighbor’s income rises along with mine, our place relative to one another in the social ranking remains the same and so does our level of happiness. Alternatively, if I manage to pass my neighbor in income rank and thus increase my happiness, my neighbor, who has lost rank, will see his happiness level decline. At the end of the day the average level of happiness has not changed.

Sapolsky and subject

The effect of social comparison and rank is limited neither to questions of happiness nor to human populations. Brown capuchin female monkeys who were trained to perform a difficult task for reward, refused to continue participating after observing another monkey receiving a better reward for the same act or being rewarded without performing at all. (Similar results have been found in dogs). Moreover, the prominent American researcher Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, who has studied for many years the social lives of baboons in Kenya, found that high status baboons enjoyed superior health and longevity compared to their counterparts down the hierarchy. Sapolsky found the low status baboons produced chronically high levels of stress hormones. These hormonal changes in time weakened their immune systems, damaged DNA and accelerated neural degeneration, thus increasing rates of illness and, ultimately, mortality.

Adding human insult to baboon injury, the British researcher Sir Michael Marmot, in a longitudinal study following thousands of civil servants working in a strictly hierarchical system, found strong evidence for a causal link between social status to health. Marmot revealed the existence of a distinct ‘social gradient,' whereby higher status confers better health. Managers live longer than even their immediate subordinates. These differences cannot be attributed to poverty or to disparities in access to health care because both managers and their subordinates in the British system make good money; both enjoy full and equal access to the high-quality English medical system. Differences in health habits, such as smoking or alcohol consumption also fail to account for the 'social gradient' since the gradient is also found in baboons, who are not known to smoke or drink alcohol regardless of their rank. According to Sapolsky and Marmot the source of the status effect on life expectancy lies in two critical factors: autonomy and social involvement. Those at the top of the hierarchy are more autonomous and socially connected. Thus they are buffered against the negative influences of chronic stress.

Like happiness, health too depends not only on one’s personal qualities but also, and especially, on one’s social circumstances.

She's got exchange options

Our tendency toward social comparison does not skip the realm of intimate relations. According to Social Exchange Theory, for example, one important factor in your decision to continue or break your romantic relations is the availability and quality of alternatives. If there are not many attractive alternatives around, the value of your intimate partner and your loyalty to him and to the relationship will increase. If your immediate surroundings are flooded with available, desiring and desirable potential partners, your relationship’s chances of survival decrease. Your satisfaction in your intimate relationship, hence, depends not only on the nature and quality of the person you're with but also on nature and quality of the other people around you could be with.

Now it appears that the effects of social comparison reach into the bedroom itself. Tim Wadsworth of the University of Denver, in a recently published study of more than 15,000 U.S. participants, found that the relationship between frequency of sex and level of happiness involves social comparison. People who believe their sex frequency is lower than the average report lower happiness than those who believe their relationship frequency exceeds the average. In other words, if Mickey believes that Nikki has sex once a week, and Nikky believes that Mickey has sex three times a week, and if they both actually have sex with their partners twice a week, then Mickey will be happier than Nikky, even though their frequency of sex is similar.

The comparative dimension of sexual satisfaction is more surprising than the results regarding wealth because wealth has conspicuous external signs that are easily identifiable. If the neighbor across the street has a new car and a renovated kitchen, you know that she has money. But sex is conducted in private, so how do you know if the neighbor is having more sex than you? Wadsworth speculates that we collect information on the average frequency of sex in our social strata through indirect sources such as the media, newspapers, magazines, and blogs (such as this one) that publish surveys and study results, and through conversations with friends. Sexual happiness is largely based on these comparative data rather than on what happens in the bedroom itself.

At the end of the day, as Festinger had intuited, our social tendencies define us and guide our lives. "Hell," said Jean-Paul Sartre, "is other people." But without other people it turns out, we would not know who we are. Besides, as long as others are around, at least we are not in hell alone...

 

Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Otterbein College and a practicing clinical psychologist in Columbus, Ohio.

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