When I was about eight, I came home from school one day and innocently asked my mother if I was “the best.” At school, we had been learning about comparative words like “better” and “best,” and I wondered if I was “the best” at something—maybe piano or reading or spelling?
My wise mother calmly replied, “You’ll never be the best at anything. The world is a big place with millions of people; it’s impossible to be the best. Just do your best, and you’ll be fine.”
I was recently reminded of this conversation after reading about the tragic increase in suicide rates at highly competitive colleges. Smart, popular, accomplished young people from loving families are taking their own lives in unprecedented numbers, a pattern that some experts attribute to the drive to be the “best”—a tall if not impossible order when surrounded by other ambitious high-achievers.
Suicide is highly complex and can never be attributed to a single cause, although depression is almost always an underlying factor. College mental health experts directly attribute much of modern young adults' malaise to consequences of social comparison—comparing one’s own accomplishments, looks, athletic prowess, school grades, or popularity—to their classmates and feeling that they’re coming up short, often with devastating consequences.
It’s not just college students who compare themselves to others. Most of us have compared ourselves to a friend, colleague, or even a celebrity, in a quest to figure out “how we’re doing.” It’s hard not to do when magazine articles celebrate "The Top 40 Under 40,” and yoga clothing catalogs showcase images of CEO moms who build orphanages in their spare time. It’s hard for our own lives to shine in comparison.
Can we wean ourselves from social comparison? It’s easier said than done. Some psychologists, most notably Leon Festinger, believe that our desire to compare ourselves to others is a drive—one almost as powerful as thirst or hunger.
While comparisons can be informative, they’re almost always discouraging, because someone’s always going to end up on the bottom. My mother was not a social psychologist, but she knew that the desire to top others was an exercise in futility.
A better way to figure out "How am I doing?” might be to compare ourselves today to where we were in the past, or to where we want to be in the future.
This process, called temporal comparison, is less well-known than Festinger’s social comparison theory, but there are good reasons why we should rely on temporal rather than social comparisons when taking stock of our lives.
Here are three reasons why using social comparisons is wrong:
- Others’ so-called "perfection" is an illusion. The glorious vacations, the enviable professional accomplishments, the perfect children and spouses we see on our friends’ Facebook pages are just one sliver of their real lives. It’s the truth, but not the “whole truth and nothing but the truth.” A friend may proudly announce the publication of their new novel, but conceal the 12 rejections their manuscript received before being published. We may envy the smiling suntanned family we see on a tropical vacation, although we’re not privy to the fact that the 30 seconds of smiling came after three hours of squabbling and sniping. If we knew others’ whole truths, we might not feel so inadequate when comparing ourselves to their carefully crafted public images of "perfection."
- Life isn’t fair. Some people are born with more advantages than others: A perfectly symmetrical face. Rapid-fire metabolism. Wealthy parents. Social connections that help them score a coveted job. Yet when we compare ourselves (unfavorably) to others, we often beat ourselves up for not trying hard enough. It’s much more likely that the differences we see reflect an uneven playing field. Hard work just isn’t enough sometimes.
- Comparisons turn friends and allies into rivals. In a perfect world, we would celebrate and genuinely enjoy the joys and accomplishments of others. Yet if we use others as a benchmark to evaluate ourselves, that creeping twinge of jealousy may undermine our ability to truly cherish the good things that come to others. Just remember: Over time, things may even out, and a friend’s success may enable him or her to support and make opportunities for others (including you).
Here are two ways temporal comparisons can help us:
- They help to structure our goals. Thinking about where we’d like to be in the future and comparing that to where we are today helps us to structure our goals in sensible ways. Whether we’re an adult dreaming of a career change, or a college student hoping to go to medical school, having a clear idea of what we need to do, what we have been doing, and what’s got to change can help us to take realistic steps to reach our goals.
- They help us to troubleshoot. Temporal comparisons can be thought of us fact-finding missions, on which we find out facts about ourselves. Are you struggling with a two-mile run today, but sailed along a five-miler last week? If so, what’s changed in the past week? These "data" help us to isolate possible obstacles to doing the best job possible. Maybe we got a bad night’s sleep, or have too many work worries on our mind, or have an undiagnosed illness, and our run is suffering as a result. This fact-finding may help us to pinpoint problems that could have otherwise gone unnoticed, and may help us to remedy those obstacles that are preventing us from doing our "personal best.”
By focusing on self-improvement rather than one-upmanship, we’ll have a more realistic and insightful strategy for reaching our goals, and ideally, our friends and loved ones will be there to support us along the way.