Do you find that you often compare yourself to others? Do you feel embarrassed or ashamed when you see that someone younger than you has accomplished more in life than you have? Do you envy famous people and their rich and expensive lifestyles? Social comparison theory suggests that some people have a tendency to make conclusions about their personal and social worth by comparing themselves against others (and assessing how they stack up in comparison).
These social comparisons can influence how people feel about themselves. They can determine whether a person feels happy or sad about themselves and their life. Social comparisons can occur in one of two ways: Upward comparisons (comparing yourself against more ‘successful’ people, organisations, etc) or downwards comparisons (comparing yourself against people less ‘successful’ than you). Let me give an example of an upward social comparison first before looking at an example of a downwards social comparison.
Let’s assume that you are just an everyday average person with an everyday average job, everyday average salary, etc, etc. If you were to compare yourself and your life, your salary, etc, to people like Elon Musk or Kim Kardashian for example, your self-esteem and sense of self-worth might take bit of a blow. You may ask yourself “Why them? What do they have that I don’t”? If you use social media daily, and you see thousands of successful people daily (real or fake), you may begin to wonder why you can’t seem to succeed in life no matter how hard you try.
Upwards social comparisons can either make you feel worse about yourself (like we just discussed) or, if you have a particular talent for distorting reality, better about yourself. Do you know a name dropper? Someone who constantly compares themselves with ‘successful’ people without achieving any real success of their own? These people use upward comparisons to boost their self-esteem, self-worth, etc by saying things like “I went to the same school as Kim Kardashian and she was my friend” or “Elon Musk didn’t go to college so I don’t need to either”.
Downwards social comparisons however are somewhat unidirectional as they usually only boost self-esteem, self-worth, etc. For example, if you are living in poverty (by Western standards) and you compare yourself against people living in poverty in third world countries, you are most likely going to think to yourself “Well at least I don’t have it as bad as them”. Downwards social comparisons are most likely going to lead you to feel grateful for what you have even if it doesn’t seem like much. So is it better to use downwards social comparisons or upwards social comparisons?
It really depends on your abilities. If you can look at successful people and not be discouraged or disempowered by what they have in comparison to what you don’t have, then by all means do so. Role models are upwards comparisons. Likewise, as discussed, downwards comparisons can help us feel grateful and content in life. Be careful though because sometimes downwards comparisons can foster arrogance and so falsely bolster self-esteem (“Look at that homeless person. What a bum. They could never be as successful as me”).
Many people might be quick to throw downward comparisons into the ‘toxic positivity’ basket but I think a properly used downward comparison every now and then can help us to be humble and empathetic. Overall though, anytime that a social comparison is leading you to feel bad about yourself, it’s best to stop the comparison. Whats the point of focusing on someone else’s life when doing so is only taking the focus off of your life?