The Age of Social Comparison: When Self-Involvement Makes You Unhappy

We live in an age of entitlement and self-involvement.  A Metra train conductor offered an example last summer:

I was taking tickets and the train was getting pretty crowded. I noticed a middle-aged lady standing near an empty seat. I could tell she was asking a young woman to move a package so she could sit. Apparently, to no avail. So, I walked over to smooth the situation over. The younger woman was gorgeous, maybe 25 or so, and attending to her phone, not the person hovering over her. When I asked her to move the stuff she ignored me. I tried again, same result: head down, as if I didn’t exist. OK, now I bent down so I was harder to ignore and told her she needed to let the woman sit; said the other person had a right to a seat. Finally she talks, in a kind of astonished and disrespectful voice, ‘You don’t understand, I’m beautiful!’

Does her beauty make her happier, I wondered? Are her gorgeous selfies (I’m sure she has a ton) the path to everlasting bliss? Taking them, making them, reviewing them, sharing them, comparing them?

The back-to-back hardships of the Great Depression (1929-1939) and World War II (1939-1945), contributed to a more modest and realistic view of a life worth living: a selfie-less and more selfless life. In 1931, James Truslow Adams coined a soon famous expression capturing something now lost and redefined, “that the American Dream of a better, richer, happier life (be available) for all our citizens of every rank.” Not fame or Midas-like wealth, but “enough” in the reach of all.

Granted, he didn’t include blacks in his vision, but at least his view was independent of constant social comparisons, Kardashianized aspirations, and the belief more is always better: a bigger residence, finer clothes, and social status. Where happiness is somehow attached to what you buy and the ability to turn heads until they swivel. Where college is intended not to enlighten you to the glorious natural world, man’s loftiest thoughts, and responsibility to his fellow creatures, but to learn enough technique to receive special treatment for you and your wallet.

I believe a good part of today’s unhappiness, not including the genuine want suffered by so many, is that a large number of those doing pretty-well want more and more with no end to their wanting. Want for themselves.

Perhaps no limit exists because there is always someone with more. We envy greater beauty, infinite wealth, a bigger house, a superior job when they are not ours. Envy assumes “my life would be better if only …” according to Joseph Epstein. TV, not to mention the internet and other vehicles of voyeurism, show people flaunting their prosperity. We know how much they make for a living, where they reside, and what cars they drive. The “information highway” and its attendant loss of privacy fuels our desire and our frustration.

The question then becomes not how can I get more of what they have (and thereby grab on to more happiness), but does this path lead to my goal?

Christopher Boyce, Gordon Brown, and Simon Moore, in a 2010 article in Psychological Science, provided data from 12,000 British adults which supports the notion that comparing ourselves to others is a problem. The authors found that “the rank position of an individual’s income within his reference group dominated the explanation of life satisfaction. “In other words, “satisfaction is gained from each ‘better than’ comparison and lost for each ‘worse than’ comparison.’” Moreover, their subjects tended to make comparisons to those above themselves in income 1.75 times more than they made those comparisons to those below them.

Following the same logic, even if your wage increases by a substantial amount, your sense of well-being might not substantially increase unless the extra salary changes your rank within your comparison group (or unless your paycheck is relatively modest, as noted below). If all incomes go up without changing your rank you would be no happier.

All this envy-induced pain might be justified if it motivated people and led to the prosperity needed to unlock the door to serenity. The problem is, the key doesn’t work. Indeed, international ratings of life satisfaction put the USA high, but not as high as you’d think given our superior wealth. We rank 19th of the 34 OECD countries in the 2017 World Happiness Report.

Psychological research suggests that beyond $75,000 in annual income, you don’t get much hedonic bang for the additional buck. In other words, all the things you would buy with the extra money your neighbor has won’t make your moment-to-moment experience of life much more pleasing unless your income was unexceptional in the first place.

What does this mean at a practical level? In the December 23, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books, Thomas Nagel wrote:

When I was growing up, if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the local movie theater, and you saw what was playing that week. Now I can see almost any movie from the entire history of cinema whenever I feel like it. Am I any happier as a result? I doubt it.”

Sound familiar? Similar to kids who are thrilled with their long yearned-for Christmas gifts, we adults put most new material acquisitions on the shelf or use them with little delight after a small passage of time. Warning: if shopping is the way you fill yourself up, this is your future.

The temporary “high” of a new purchase is diminished because of “hedonic adaptation.” Put simply, we get accustomed to things. The momentary excitement of the new possession soon wanes, like the smell of a new car.

Ah, but hope is not dead. The ancient moral philosophers of Greece and Rome recommended less concern with status, wealth, and material things. Instead, they suggested personal contentment would come from knowing yourself, performing social acts of virtue and public good, and friendship. Researchers now recognize the important part friendship, doing good, and being grateful can have on well-being.

The psychologist Csíkszentmihályi offers another path to satisfaction. He points to the capacity of productive and engaging work to produce a sense of “living in the moment:” unmindful of past and future because of being pleasantly engrossed in the present. This is called the “flow” state, one in which you are completely focused at a maximum level of performance and untroubled, positive experience. “In the zone” as athletes describe it. A different path to living in the moment, of course, is the mindfulness meditation of those master meditators who are among the happiest folks on earth.

Social scientists also remind us that married people are happier than those going solo, although it is unclear whether this is due to the positive influence of marriage on well-being, the possibility individuals who are relatively happy are more likely to marry, or some other cause.

Last point: data analysis by Christopher Boyce and Alex Wood in their 2010 article in Health Economics, Policy and Law found a short-term course of psychotherapy is at least 32 times more effective than monetary awards in improving a sense of well-being among those who have experienced some form of injury or loss.

I’ve said enough. I imagine you are scheduling a therapy appointment already.

The top Foto is the work of Catarinasilva25 and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The four paintings also come from Wikimedia Commons and are described in this way on Wikipedia:

The Four Freedoms is a series of four 1943 oil paintings by the American artist Norman Rockwell. The paintings—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—are each approximately 45.75 inches (116.2 cm) × 35.5 inches (90 cm), and are now in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The four freedoms refer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s January 1941 Four Freedoms State of the Union address in which he identified essential human rights that should be universally protected. The theme was incorporated into the Atlantic Charter, and became part of the charter of the United Nations. The paintings were reproduced in The Saturday Evening Post over four consecutive weeks in 1943, alongside essays by prominent thinkers of the day.

19 thoughts on “The Age of Social Comparison: When Self-Involvement Makes You Unhappy

  1. Did you tell the young woman that her looks were not the issue?


  2. Joseph Patrick Lori

    Dr. Stein:
    I have been wondering , lately if I would ever again hear or read a comment such as this one again from someone, no offense intended, who can still remember when the mighty steam locomotive carried passengers on their way from one end of the country to the other, with its shrill whistle penetrating the eerie silence of endless miles of forest and farmland and when the very first cars without running boards came off the assembly line.
    Speaking of trains, I lived and worked for a time in your neck of the woods and I rode that Metra Train frequently. I am very much aware that just about anything can happen on that train.
    I most certainly do NOT approve of that young woman’s behavior, and, quite frankly, I think that something should be done about this sort of thing!
    Your response to this incident, quite frankly, or maybe I should say, quite bluntly, is fairly typical of people in your age bracket. Given the seeming shallowness and softness of people today, and especially younger people, you seem to yearn for the so-called “good old days”, when people had values and acted on them and were respectful and understood the fact that nothing in this world was owed to them by the simple virtue of the fact that they existed and hard work and perseverance ultimately won the day and virtue and character were ultimately more important than money and possessions and not just because you were scared that you would get sent to some horrible prison if you got caught embezzling from your employer, because some of the so-called “prisons today are actually country clubs, etc.
    Since I, myself, never actually lived through the so-called “good old days”, MOST of my information on this very general era is ultimately, second-hand.
    My own personal view of the “good old days” was dramatically altered this past summer when I discovered, quite by accident, the practice in many public schools in this country of compulsory nude male swimming in public highschools, complete with photographs of public swim meets with other schools carried out in the nude and total nudity in team pictures with all individuals identified in the captions. As I am sure that it was brought out in the post that dealt specifically with that subject, this sort of thing went on, in the name of good intentions, from the era of the Model-T Ford until the dawn of the age of supersonic air travel, and for some very firmly entrenched schools and school districts, all the way up into the early 1980’s, when it finally came to an end. As a matter of fact, I wrote a letter to the editor of my local newspaper today, for a different topic.
    Over the years, I have also been confronted with evidence and stories about human rights abuses that took place back in the so-called “good old days”.
    Over 20 years ago, I saw pictures of old tin cans with their labels still on them for products such as molasses, syrup, sorghum, etc. One of them had the product name, ” n#@&$_#! in de cane patch”. Another product went by the name of “African Child”, and showed a graphic illustration on its label of a black baby crawling through a swamp about to be swallowed alive by a crocodile in hot pursuit. I recently found out about old midway games at carnivals, one of which featured a stuffed doll resembling a black infant attached to a back wall called “Hit the n#@$_- Baby”. It was one of those “3 balls for a quarter” deals and you could win a prize. I also saw an old cartoon about how an African American woman gives her toddler-son a bath while doing the laundry and living in a cabin in the woods in poverty. I even once saw a piece of sheet music from the late 19th century with the song title: “All d@#$&-xs Look the same to me.”
    When it comes to the story of your train ride, there were so-called “railroad bulls” who were employed by the railroads to beat hobos with heavy wooden sticks when they were caught in empty box cars. Labor strikes were often dealt with in much the same way, and sometimes with rifle fire.
    Then, of course, there are the stories about how rape victims were often blamed for their own rapes because people chose to believe that they brought it on themselves by being “loose”.
    When I was in college before, I knew a Priest who taught psychology who was an older man. One day, in class, he remarked that he never understood why people were always referring to the days of his youth as “the good old days”.
    “There was nothin’ good about ’em,” he said.
    Speaking of Catholicism, everyone who grew up in”the good old days” as a Catholic usually has at least one “mean nun” story to tell. Most have 5 or 6.
    When my Grandmother died in the 1930’s, when my Dad was only 12, He and my aunts had to go and live in an for 2 years. My Dad was one of those kids who couldn’t stop talking in class. The nuns had just the right solution for that sort of problem. He was taken to the back of a dormitory where a group of nuns gave him a bareback spanking. When he got back from the orphanage after 2 years, he went back to his old Parish grade school . The first thing that his homeroom nun said to him was: “We’re not going to make it easy on you like we did in the orphanage.” This particular nun enforced order in her classroom by giving gangster names to discipline problem students such as John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, etc.
    One day, my Dad got in a fight on the playground and the nun told my Dad to stay after school. When school was over and they were both alone, the nun asked my Dad, “Do you know the reason why your mother died?” My Dad responded, “Yes, she had a baby and then got
    pneumonia and never recovered.”
    “No,” said the nun, ” She died because you killed her. You are BAD.” At this, my Dad turned to leave. “Where do you think you’re going,” she demanded? My Dad
    turned back and said: “I was always
    raised to never go where I am not
    welcome, and I am not welcome here, Sister.” My Dad turned to leave again and the nun demanded,
    “Come back here!” My Dad ignored her and left.
    The next day, my Grandfather
    had to go to a meeting with the nun who was the School Principal. At that meeting he was informed that
    my Dad would not be allowed to
    return to Catholic School the
    following year. Instead, he would
    attend a public Junior high school for eight grade. Luckily, then, it was
    my Dad’s cousin who was the
    trouble maker and not my Dad;
    One day, when he was misbehaving, the teacher threw a book at him and hit him on the head.
    There was a man who was of my Father’s generation who wrote for our local newspaper for a long time.
    Given the frigid temperatures that we are experiencing right now at the beginning of the year, I remember something from one of his columns that he wrote years ago. He once said: “Anyone who
    would actually want to go back to the good old days either never
    actually lived in them, or has a
    poor memory. The good old days
    were cold.” I also remember that he once wrote, (and I don’t know whether or not he made this up himself), “In the mists of memory, the roses have no thorns.”
    I wouldn’t suppose that everything about the “good old days” was bad, however.
    In regards to the Metra Train ride that seems to be the inspiration for
    your post here, I am a member of the steam locomotive Group on Facebook in addition to being a member of Pipe Organ Builders, Pipe Organ Tuners , Residence Pipe Organ Builders and Organist Pages.
    And yes, Virginia, just in case you wanted to know, they still do make
    pipe organs!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Joseph. Just a couple of points. The train conductor told me this story. I didn’t see it or either of the woman. I have no illusions about the good old days, certainly not as currently imagined or as I lived then as a kid in the ’50s.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you, Dr. S, for this awesome post! I take the Metra frequently to go to the VA. I see many people like that woman who refused to clear the seat – some who are a tad bit older than that woman is, some who are about her age, and some who are much younger. They refuse to give up their seat for a number of reasons, but I agree that people in general (not to tack on a specific generation or gender) are no longer content with the here and now, the pride in one’s work, the empathy toward another who may or may not have as much as you do, the pride in someone else’s accomplishments (not jealousy, not envy, but genuine happiness for someone else – which is largely lacking in today’s society – again, not to pin it to one generation or profile of people). I’ve seen many people of many different backgrounds so determined on getting a leg up in the world that they negate the relationships around them. I recall in a Phi Theta Kappa chapter when we had to discuss and research the “culture of competition,” and how some of that competition can be very harmful when approached in a cut-throat-and-all-about-me sort of way. I stated that co-opetition is better because you’re competing against yourself to be the best you can be while also cooperating with others to HELP THEM be the best version that they can be; you’re all helping one another toward your goals, and you’re benefiting from the SOCIAL SUPPORT you offer and receive along the way. But today’s people are so segregated: the older generations (I’m one of them Gen X people) tend to judge the younger generations (my daughter, my peers in college, my younger friends belong to those), and vice versa (the younger generations learn from the older generations who are profiling them by reciprocating that same judgment). It’s as if social comparison has crossed a line into a form of discrimination that no one hardly discusses – ageism. Legally, ageism applies to anyone over 40, but it is rarely defended in graduate school admissions, the workplace, and social settings. However, I’ve also heard (and believed) the argument that ageism also occurs among the young, who are also denied the same rights and privileges and respect. I’ve seen it – the whole social comparison thing. It would be easy for me to say that I have more life experience than a younger person – which may or may not be true, but I’ve known very many young people who are more intelligent than I, and who have been through life experiences I could never dream of (some traumatic, some rewarding, some a bit of both). I try to see people as people, but it is hard when the media and the world tells you that materialism is the way to happiness, and money to buy that material is the ticket to get there – like you said, so not true; it’s a temporary fix until it wanes. Relationships across all generations matter, which I think was one of the strong points you were making (which can be easily be misinterpreted by the judgemental few from any generation who like to compete and defend their own – an egotistic way of representing like selves when competing against those whom they consider unlike themselves; as opposed to an altruistic morale of understanding the needs of others and yourself combined, the fact that relationships matter no matter who you are, what generation you’re from, what gender, how attractive you are, what your status is, etc.). I’ve met the most beautiful, kind-hearted people in homeless shelters (some very young, some very old, and some my age), and I’ve met the most cold-hearted-like people in high positions, high statuses, highly competitive fields. I’ve also met the opposite, too, in those same places – some very cold-hearted-like people in homeless shelters, and some very beautiful and kind-hearted people in high positions. Sometimes beauty also attracts bullies, sexual harassment, shaming by jealous or envious others, etc., and sometimes beauty is within. Relationships and social support matters – the kind you get from a good therapist, the kind you get from friends, the kind you even get from strangers on a train. Loneliness, unhealthy competition, self-absorption, conceit, unhealthy narcissism, false attributions leading to discrimination and poor judgment, lack of cooperation and healthy relationships (no matter how minor they are such as in strangers passing by one another in a market or on the train), entitlements based on your “status” (whatever generation you are, race you are, gender you are, etc.) can be harmful to not only others, but also the self. The young woman was wrong, and older people (like myself) tire very easily. I’ve experienced discrimination and judgement from some (not all) younger persons, and I’ve had many ignore me or give me a dirty look when I ask to sit down on a crowded bus or train. I’ve had very wonderful young people and older people also offer their seat immediately. What that young woman said and did was wrong and was poor behavior. What’s happened across time (the chronosystem) that has affected ALL GENERATIONS of today is a lack of moral values. The younger generations see this, the older generations feel this, and luckily, we’re working together to fix this. Social media and technology are great tools to have, but with great advances to our infrastructure and the broader macrosystem, we have to take great strides and responsibility to learn how to maintain the good we’ve had across generations and build from there. Some people will judge that as a battle against the generations, but I see it as a reminder of the wonderful things we had before technology, and the wonderful things we could still have today if we weren’t so blinded by today’s new competitiveness. Everyone can feel entitled, but today’s society comprising young and old tends to feel entitled more and more. It’s not a generation thing by age so much as it is a chronosystem thing – a chronosystem that has largely influenced social comparisons.


    • Thank you, PP. Just to emphasize one point you are making, I could make an argument about the closed-mindedness of seniors as easily as I could of those among the young who are preoccupied with their selfies and their entitlement. Entitlement, whether it is to a seat on a commuter train or a tax break benefiting the already wealthy, knows no bounds. If, however, we think about a time before either of us were alive, when the only opportunity of an average person to look into the abode of the wealthy usually came in the movies, we are now flooded with representations of what the “American Dream” is: a counterfeit of its original meaning and one that feeds the egocentrism and narcissism of those who have little else to give them a grounding in what might be really important. Thus, technology, to my mind, for all its wonders, can have a morally corrupting effect.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Dr. S! I must admit, I don’t know much about entitlement or the effects of technology, but you make some really great points. A researcher by the name of Dr. Helen Joy Policar, PhD (2010) had written an article (“The Shadow of the American Dream: The Clash of Class Ascension and Shame”), which centers on the feeling of shame. This article really moved and inspired me because she included her own personal story and accounts of shame as she climbed that academic and socioeconomic ladder. I’m grateful to everyone who speaks about these issues and related. It helps minorities like me feel like I still have a purpose, have hope, and have a place in this world. Egocentrism, narcissism, entitlement, and technology are highly overrated when compared to the matters that touch hearts, build relationships, and bring love back into a world that has forgotten its importance.


      • A lovely sentiment.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for reminding us of the “Four Freedoms” and the paintings by Norman Rockwell. I loved this as a child and am still moved at the mention of them. Why some people can’t get enough remains a mystery to me. I just feel lucky that I’ve been able to make a good life for myself with what I have.
    By the way, I am always pleased and a little surprised at how considerate the young people on the 147 CTA bus are towards us oldsters. We seem to always get a seat and a smile.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dr. Stein, thanks for yet another one of your enlightening posts. I agree with your when you say: “I believe a good part of today’s unhappiness, not including the genuine want suffered by so many, is that a large number of those doing pretty-well want more and more with no end to their wanting. Want for themselves.”

    When we equate happiness with the stuff we can accumulate, our happiness becomes fleeting. To be or to have? Herein lies the real question for happiness that lasts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you’ve put it well, Rosaliene. I’d add that happiness is always, for most of us, a temporary state, but one we can make more enduring with the right choices.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Healthy simple food, presentable clothes, dependable car, roof over your head, no debt if you can acquire this, health insurance, simple pleasures, and someone you love to share your life with. This is happiness.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Dr. Harvey Friedson

    Albert Einstein wrote, “A calm and humble life will bring more happiness than the pursuit of success and the constant restlessness that comes with it.” Maybe he knew something.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Indeed. Thanks, Harvey.


  9. I am your regular visitor . love your writing


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s