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Why Pursuit of Superiority Lowers Happiness (and Success)

Insights on why the pursuit of superiority is a "deadly happiness sin"

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"How many goals did you score?"
Source: "How many goals did you score?"

We are constantly goaded by everyone around us—from parents and teachers to mentors and leaders—to pursue superiority. That is, we are prodded to be better than the others around us at whatever we do. The prodding happens in subtle and in not-so-subtle ways. I can remember this one time when my son came home after playing a game of soccer. One of my relatives happened to be home at that time, and the first question he asked my son was, “How many goals did you score, son?” This question was followed with, “Did anyone score more goals than you?” My son was subsequently praised, hugged, and kissed because he had been the highest goal-scorer.

If you have had a typical upbringing, you can relate to the experience of being praised when you emerged as “superior” to others. You can also relate to not being praised—or even being chastised—if you emerged as “inferior” to others. It’s not just within our families that we are exposed to messages that reinforce the pursuit of superiority; we are exposed to it everywhere. At schools, we see that “superior” students get more resources, and that “superior” athletes get better-looking dates. At firms, we see that “superior” employees (aka bosses) get higher salaries and better perks. And n the newspapers and magazines, we see greater attention showered on successful companies—something known as the “survivor bias.” At an even broader level, the “winner-take-all” culture that is becoming increasingly prevalent (according to economist Robert Frank) further emphasizes the importance of being “numero uno.”

There are some valid reasons why everyone pushes us to pursue superiority. In our evolutionary past, superior—that is, faster, bigger, stronger, prettier, etc.—had a better shot at surviving. Even in the present day and age, where survival isn’t at stake for many of us, the tendency to rank people serves a useful purpose: it helps us identify the people best suited for specific tasks. (Without ranking people, we wouldn't know whether to hire a musician or a plumber to fix our toilet.)

So, the tendency to rank and judge people is there to stay.

But that doesn’t mean that the pursuit of superiority is a good thing. Why? Because, not only does it lower our happiness levels—for reasons I will get to shortly—it also lowers our chances of succeeding, particularly in intellectual tasks. When you focus on coming out on top, you can’t focus as well on the task at hand, thereby worsening your performance. Imagine, for example, that you next in line to make a presentation, and that the person who went before you made an outstanding one. The more you are get caught up in “beating” this presenter, the less you will be able to focus on what you want to say and hence, the worse your presentation will be. (Take at look at this RSAnimate by Dan Pink for related findings. If you want to hear the view of experts on the topic, register for my Coursera course on happiness.)

That’s not to say that the need for superiority has no role to play in success. It can definitely light a fire under our backside, motivating us to do pursue goals. For example, if you knew that, one year from now, you’d stand to gain a big fat bonus by being the “salesperson of the year,” that knowledge will motivate you to work harder now. But in the moment—that is, when you are actually selling—the need for superiority (e.g., wondering how well you are doing compared to others) won’t help you; in fact, it’ll come in the way of your success.

Apart from lowering chances of success, the pursuit of superiority lowers happiness levels for two other reasons. First, it fosters the tendency to engage in social comparisons. The reason for this is straightforward: if you pursue superiority, you will want to know how much better (richer, faster, prettier, etc.) you are than others. amd the easiest way to make this assessment is by comparing with others. As it turns out, comparing with others is one of the surest ways to lower happiness. You might feel proud when things are going well, but when they aren’t (which is bound happen sooner or later), you will feel miserable. There’s a reason they say, “pride comes before a fall.”

Second, pursuit of superiority is likely to make your materialistic, and it turns out that materialistic people are not happy. The reason that pursuit of superiority makes one materialistic is because the tendency to compare oneself with others pushes one to use quantifiable, measurable, yardsticks to do the comparing. This is because it’s easier to compare with others on measurable, quantifiable yardsticks (wealth, number of twitter followers, rank in the hierarchy, etc.) than on less easy-to-measure ones like skills or attitudes. So, invariably, those who pursue superiority end up becoming more materialistic. And materialistic people, as I mentioned earlier, are miserable. There are many reasons for this, including adaptation (we adapt to material things faster) and social isolation (people—for understandable reasons—dislike materialistic people).

So, for a variety of reasons, the pursuit of superiority lowers happiness levels. And what’s more, it also lowers our chances of success.

Why then do so many of us chase superiority? One reason is that, as mentioned earlier, it does play a useful role in motivating us pursue goals. Another reason is that we are so conditioned to it—by our genes and by societal messages—that it has become our second nature.

Where does all of this leave us? It suggests that, if we can find another way to motivate ourselves—another way to pursue goals—we’d be much better-off jettisoning the need for superiority.

But is there an alternative motivation that can help us pursue goals? And if so, what is it?

Those are the questions to which I will turn in my next post.

Interested in these topics? Check out my new book.

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