Comparison is the thief of joy – thoughts on competition and happiness

In the famous Capuchin monkey experiments (Brosnan & de Waal), a monkey is perfectly content with cucumber as a reward. However, after seeing a neighbouring monkey receive grapes instead, it becomes angry and rejects the cucumber, refusing to perform any tasks for the previously accepted reward.

Are we humans the same? Without the knowledge that something better exists we cannot desire that thing in the first place or end up feeling jealous.

At the same time, as social beings it is important to learn from others and their experiences. Through observations about what others do, we can gain insight on how to achieve similar goals, learn from their past mistakes, and reflect on our own roles and approaches to life in relation to theirs. Comparison to some degree is inevitable when interacting with others and can help with growth through inspiration, but when it becomes a reason for competition, it can have negative effects.

Some people can become so consumed in gaining more wealth, accomplishments, fame, etc. than others that what they have is never enough. Overworking and constant dissatisfaction have obviously detrimental effects both physically and mentally on the body. Oppositely, seeing others achieve expectations and dreams that they themselves could not or have not can cause some people to accept their inadequacy or adopt a victim mentality, essentially giving up on striving (which is also unhealthy!).

Then again competition is not a bad thing. From an evolutionary perspective, competition is what has driven the billions of organisms alive on Earth to develop through all sorts of pressures in order to survive. Sometimes the strategy is to outcompete other species for resources, other times it is to achieve synergy with other species. I think humans are generally competitive by nature and seek out knowledge and technology from a drive to know and achieve more. Competition between individuals pushes for adaptation and growth that goes beyond physical survival. We compete for status, popularity, and even happiness.

“The grass is always greener on the other side.” This is particularly true when viewing content in social media that are the highlight reels of other people’s lives. Having an online presence is becoming more and more of a necessity for both everyday and professional lives and it has fundamentally changed the way we can control and distort presentation of ourselves to others. Through a glimpse of people’s lives from text updates on a new job, smiling photos, and videos of fun events it seems possible to measure up our social successes and happiness against others’.

Of course, comparison does not always mean to others ‘doing better’ but can also apply to those ‘doing worse’. I don’t think either are very helpful when the conclusion of the comparison is seen as objective truth. The metric for success is individual in that everyone has their own strengths, passions, and path to achieve what they can and want in life. And the metric for success is comparative in that there will always be someone who is better than you at something. These two statements do not negate each other.

So comparison fires up a competitive drive. That causes growth. Yet we all want to be winners. And that causes us to be less happy.

So what’s better, to be in ignorance and bliss as the monkey that only knows cucumbers as a possibility or to sacrifice a bit of joy for the knowledge that something better, like grapes, is out there?

Here is a video about the research on Capuchin monkeys and unequal pay.

Thanks for reading,

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