Cindy frequently compares herself to other people. However, she feels bad no matter how the comparison turns out. If she concludes that another woman is a better manager or makes more money, then she feels inferior and her self-esteem suffers. But she feels bad when she’s better off than someone who, for instance, may have had gotten a poor job review. Then she fears that she could suffer the same fate.
Because Cindy’s constantly checking other people out, she increases the number of times that she comes across people who are richer, healthier, more successful, funnier, or especially attractive. She then finds herself making unfavorable comparisons, and thinks less of herself as a result. But if she tries to make herself feel better by looking at people who have problems, she’s sad and frustrated knowing she’s propping up her self-esteem at the expense of someone else’s suffering.
The moral of Cindy’s story is that spending too much time comparing yourself to others leads to unhappiness. To be fair, it’s hard to avoid being influenced by the advertisements depicting the most beautiful people in the world – even though their pictures are enhanced by some Photoshop guru. And we’re constantly exposed to the ups and downs of our family, relatives, friends and coworkers – often because their lives are prominently displayed on Facebook. Paying too much attention to how everyone else is doing, however, leaves us feeling insecure, vulnerable, and inadequate.
Positive psychology studies show that the less attention someone pays to how others around them are doing, the happier they are. When psychologists investigated how folks felt in comparison to other’s lifestyles, personalities, attractiveness, or relationships, the researchers were surprised to discover how little of what was going on with others mattered to the people who were happiest.
Rather than allowing themselves to be influenced by how well or poorly others are doing, the psychologists found that happy people judged themselves primarily by their own internal standards. They took pleasure in the success of others and felt concerned when they were struggling. Unhappy people, the research revealed, were deflated by someone else’s accomplishments and were relieved when they failed.
If you’re hurting yourself by making too many social comparisons, start being mindful of automatically judging yourself. Begin by noticing when you’re feeling badly about yourself. Ask yourself what thought just ran through your mind. If you find yourself comparing yourself to others, you can change your thinking by redirecting your attention to your personal strengths. You have a unique set of strengths – your unique set of natural talents that became hardwired into your brain as you’ve developed them with knowledge and skill-building.
Because you’ve been focused on other people’s assets, you may not be aware of your own strengths. It’s helpful to post a list of your strengths to reference when you need to shift your attention from other people’s attributes to your own.
How can you recognize your strengths? They’ll be apparent when you’re engaged in an activity that leaves you feeling: “This is great. I love doing this. I wish it could go on forever. It’s perfect for me.” When using your strengths, you feel natural and confident, passionate and powerful, enthusiastic and energized. It’s you at your best.
Identify 5 strengths that you possess, either by spotting them when they occur or taking the free strengths survey at www.viacharacter.org. Then expand when, where, and how you use them. Studies show that one of the best ways to build and broaden the use of your strengths is to keep a “best possible self” journal.
To start, take twenty minutes to picture what your life would look like in a year or two if everything turned out as you want it to. Write those images down along with a description of how you’re using your strengths to be at your best in order to achieve your vision. Write every day. Just like beginning to exercise your body, you need to give your mind a workout to build your mental “strengths muscle.”
After you have created your overall vision of an optimistic long-term outcome, break it up into specific goals like “improve my customer’s satisfaction” or “generate 3 positives for every negative in my relationships.” Use your strengths to accomplish a daily objective for each goal. For example: “I’ll use my ‘learner’ strength to read about how to improve customer satisfaction.” “I’ll apply my strength of ‘gratitude’ to tell my spouse 3 things that I appreciate about them when we talk tonight.”