Whenever we’re on the topic of humblebrags, a friend reminds me of a funny thing she did when she was 11 years old: When her family moved from Canada to Germany, she began casually wearing all the academic and sports medals she had ever won to a local hangout for teens. She never referred to the medals around her neck, but instead counted on the display of her illustrious past to impress potential new friends.
It didn’t work. Instead, after a snide comment from a competitive girl, she felt embarrassed about the half-dozen awards and stopped wearing them out.
William Irvine, a professor of philosophy at Wright State University, would say that my young friend was playing “the social hierarchy game,” where we compare ourselves to those around us to make sure we’re doing okay or better than our peers, or use self-promotion as a tool to climb the social ladder. From the standpoint of evolutionary psychology, status-watching is an adaptive behavior: early humans had to avoid rejection from the group to stay alive, so status was connected to survival and access to resources. Although our circumstances have changed considerably, that ancient habit of minding the pecking order still manifests in the brands we buy, what we share on Instagram, the food we eat, and even the books we read.
It would be nice to think that we stop wasting time and energy on the comparison game as we age—what’s endearing in an 11-year-old is just thirsty in an adult—but the reality is we’re all walking around wearing a gaggle of medals, and it can be a serious impediment to our happiness.
The following lessons—inspired by Stoic and contemporary philosophy, psychological research, and Buddhism—explain how to escape, or at least tame, insidious social comparison and make space for a more considered life.
The Stoic philosophers—including Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and others—lived 2,000 years ago, or more, and even then took exception to their culture’s focus on status. According to Irvine, also the author of A Guide to The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, they believed in egalitarianism as a virtue; they also felt it would be a waste of time to devote energy to those things decidedly outside of one’s control, like what other people thought of them.
The original Stoics didn’t talk a lot about happiness, per se, but they aspired to live in a state of tranquility, and they recognized that for many people, the social hierarchy game was a hindrance to it. It wasn’t just an energy-draining distraction: Getting lost in the game made it easy for someone to be led astray and unwittingly follow someone else’s priorities.
“The theory was that one of the tricks to having a good life is realizing that there are some people whose opinion you should care about, but there’s a whole bunch who don’t matter,” says Irvine. “In fact, it’s a sign of progress if I win condemnation rather than adulation from some people.”
Irvine decided to follow their example in his own life. “I have lately made a practice of pausing, before sending emails, to look for and delete material that has no function in the message other than to let the reader know what a wonderful person I am,” he wrote in an essay about his quest, adding, “In many cases, I end up deleting so much material that there is no longer a message worth sending.”
Give it a try. “For instance, do you listen to someone with interest, or wait for them to stop talking about their vacation so that you can tell them about yours?” he asks.
What you may discover is that you hide minor slights in jokes and withhold compliments with some frequency. We all do it. We seize opportunities to look cleverer, funnier, better-read, or more loyal or cynical—whatever is prized in our circle—than everyone else in the proverbial room. Even the professor once caught himself mildly teasing a student who had announced his acceptance to a highly regarded graduate school, an envy-driven misstep he divulged in one of his books.
Name your mistakes, Irvine suggests, and learn to give out praise for the admirable traits you see in other people. “You may be extremely reluctant to do that, because in some way, they’re your competitors,” he says, “but sometimes people do things that are worthy of praise, and to openly praise them in a certain culture is an act of courage because you’re admitting that they’re outplaying you in some way.”
When you face veiled insults from those looking to gain an upper hand, disarm their barbs by criticizing yourself even more harshly, or ignore the comment entirely. If insults are allowed to take up space in your psyche, you’re back in the game, warns Irvine.
Eventually, being mindful of your interpersonal behavior can trigger an attitudinal change in other realms of life. And when others see you as “socially safe,” Irvine adds, you’ll have closer, more authentic relationships.
Modern psychology has examined this tendency to look to others for information about our own value. American social psychologist Leon Festinger developed the Social Comparison Theory in the 1950s, noting that people evaluate themselves by comparison when objective standards don’t exist.
Sometimes people compare up, which leads to feelings of envy and low self-esteem, and sometimes they cast a glance downwards, to those who they’re “beating out,” which leads to satisfaction with one’s own achievements.
Occasionally, envy can be motivating. But obsessively comparing is never a good idea. Too much of it “poisons” the perpetrator, writes Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology at Princeton University, in a 2010 paper published in American Psychologist. It may feed a person’s feelings of envy, which is linked to depression and low self-esteem, or nurture scorn at those “beneath” their station, which leads to self-centeredness and a cluelessness about the experiences of others.
One of psychology’s answers to destructive comparing is to look for an alternate form of self-assessment: How do you feel about your life now versus another point in your personal history?
Even when there is a quantitative way to measure achievements, you can still find a better approach. In Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression, psychiatrist James Gordon describes a client who was distraught to learn that he wasn’t among the top 10% of his medical school class. Gordon’s advice was to change his framing to “P=MD,” a passing grade equals getting a degree and becoming a doctor. Passing is “good enough,” a framing that, in many arenas, can save a person—whether a medical student or new mother—from the self-doubt and fear of falling short of an “ideal.”
British philosopher Alain de Botton, in his 2005 classic, Status Anxiety, and subsequent essays and talks, has also offered his readers and followers a modified lens through which to see status. For one, de Botton suggests we see status-seeking behavior as a request for “love from the world.” What’s more, he says, “we live in a society that has pegged emotional rewards to material goods,” which is why we care so much about our status and careers, and why people determine how much time they’ll give to someone they meet at a cocktail party based on their answer to one question: “What do you do?”
De Botton’s advice is to keep in mind that meritocracy is a myth: it’s a combination of favorable circumstances—like race, family income, connections, geography, education, and luck— that allow some people to advance to higher paying or high-profile jobs. The illusion that social mobility is within anyone’s reach leads people to equate a lack of status with laziness or the absence of talent.
Rather than idolizing super-achievers, he says, look for something transcendent to contemplate. That might be fine art, for example, which often challenges the power and status hierarchies. Make up “your own version of success that doesn’t correspond with the capitalist agenda,” he says. Your job shouldn’t define you or anyone else, and neither should some jobs be more valued than others.
If Irvine’s strategy is to put the everyday interactions under a microscope, de Botton seems to suggest the opposite: look at larger forces and myths feeding into your perceptions and allow that awareness to free you of corrosive status-conscious behaviors.
Psychiatrists who work with billionaires say that even people who have seemingly “won” the game find other ways to compare themselves and feel they’re lacking in some respect. Are they as charitable as one of their siblings? Are they as interesting? It’s rare to find any territory in which people can’t bring their best social comparison game.
Tara Brach, a Buddhist scholar who holds a PhD in clinical psychology, says that underneath our need to gain acceptance and status is what she calls “the trance of unworthiness, a chronic feeling that we are deficient.”
“The sense that we are not enough is a pervasive suffering in our culture—one that makes it difficult to be intimate with others, to take risks to be creative at work, and to enjoy our moments,” Brach, author of Radical Acceptance, wrote in an email to Quartz. “Even those who appear as high achieving usually live with imposter syndrome and compare themselves unfavorably to others in their field.”
She also sources the problem to a part of our oldest mental framework, but points to a negativity bias built into our DNA to keep early humans alert to what was
wrong, and what could go wrong, which Brach explains, “also made it easy to dismiss our own goodness.”
Buddhist psychology has a workaround. “[It] shows how this limiting sense of self is at the root of our suffering: We’ve forgotten the love, awareness, intelligence and tenderness of our essential being,” says Brach. When caught by a pang of envy, she recommends taking a moment to breathe deeply. “Let the present moment—the breath, sensations, sights and sounds that are right here—be a refuge, a safe haven,” she says.
To her mind, meditation is a form of spiritual reparenting that can train the brain to quiet its fears and reconnect with that deeper self, and on her website she offers several guided exercises. She often recommends four steps easily remembered by an acronym: RAIN: “Recognize what is going on; allow the experience to be there, just as it is; investigate with interest and care; nourish with self-compassion.”
“Remind yourself of what you appreciate about yourself,” she writes specifically about those instances when you’re caught feeling like not enough. “It might be your love of your family, your honesty, your commitment to keep growing, your sense of humor, your creativity, your capacity for wonder.”
In returning to this exercise regularly, “you’ll undo the habit of envy, comparison and self-doubt,” Brach continues. “In their place will grow an increasing confidence and trust in yourself, and a deep sense of wellbeing.”
Finally, there’s one last bit of encouraging news from psychological research: Although we’re inveterate comparers, and the habit never goes away, says Fiske, the tendency does naturally wane as we reach our later years. “As we age,” she says, “we become more comfortable with who we are.”