You’re reading the Sunday paper, with the sun shining and a cup of coffee to hand. Life is good. And then you see it: a familiar name in the paper, perhaps an old schoolmate, winning an accolade, money, praise. Worse: they work in your field. They might as well have turned up at the breakfast table and punched you in the stomach.
We can revel in the achievements of strangers and close loved ones, but why does the success of people we know but with whom we are not intimate hurt so much? Kevin Starr, director of the Mulago Foundation, which funds philanthropic projects in the developing world, says that one of the fundamental components of human happiness is status. Starr, who gave a presentation on happiness at the Skoll World Forum on social entrepreneurship in Oxford, UK, said that striving for status is deep in our makeup as humans. This urge comes from the time when we lived as members of small bands wandering the African Savannah, which happens to account for 99% of human existence so far.
These bands worked according to a system of reciprocity and relationships based on status. To illustrate, Starr showed an extraordinary video of research by Sarah Brosnan of Georgia State University.
Capuchin monkeys like cucumbers. But they like grapes even more. A monkey will swap a stone for food—a cucumber, say—and eat it. But when it sees a neighbor rewarded with grapes instead, anxiety and dissatisfaction quickly set in. It is so unhappy, it would rather throw away the cucumber than accept second best.
These monkeys make it clear that perceived unfairness makes them unhappy. The same goes for humans.
“We are very concerned that we keep up with their peer group,” says Starr, whose organization offers unlimited funding to projects that target the poorest people in society. The need to keep up with peers is so strong that very poor people can enjoy watching television programs about the very rich with relative equanimity, but feel deeply unhappy when someone nearby gets an unfair advantage. That causes big problems with development programs that give things like mosquito nets or stoves away to some people in a community, but not everyone.
It’s also vital that people perceive themselves as doing well relative to their former selves, Starr says. Slow, steady income improvement will make people more happy than rapid growth followed by plateau, even if the latter levels off at a higher point.
When it comes to happiness, relative success is the key. Peers winning awards—or getting grapes—fuels a deep-seated, primal worry that we’re missing out. As humans, we may need to identify and discount these emotions in order to stay happy. Now, eat your cucumber.