Would you rather earn $50,000/year or $100,000/year?
That seems like a dumb question, right?
Well, what if I told you that 52% of Harvard University students responded by saying they’d prefer to make $50,000/year?[i] Does that change your answer at all? I certainly hope not! Remember what your mother always told you about not jumping off a bridge just because your friends did?
OK, so what’s the catch? Either Harvard students are not as smart as we all thought, or the question was actually more complicated than I made it out to be. In reality, the real options presented to the 159 Harvard University students in this 1998 research study were actually the following:
Circle either A or B, or if undecided, both A and B (Note that prices are what they are currently and prices are the same in States A and B):
A) Your current yearly income is $50,000; others earn $25,000.
B) Your current yearly income is $100,000; others earn $200,000
And yes, 52% of the Harvard students chose option A – to earn less money as long as it meant that they made more than their peers. So much for the old expression “a rising tide lifts all ships!”
While I found these results staggering, I thought to myself “OK, perhaps these results are just skewed because these are students without the benefit of ‘real-world’ experience. After all, these kids have literally been in competition with their peers for their entire lives in order to get into Harvard! How could they know any better? Surely, individuals a bit more removed from school wouldn’t be so concerned with their relative position to others and would prefer to make more money.”
Not so much. . . The same survey was administered to 79 Harvard University faculty and staff and a whopping 35% of these individuals still chose option A. How could anyone willingly choose to make so much less just to one-up the competition?
This is the unfortunate truth of our world. No matter how much we make, have, or accomplish, we frequently want to compare our achievements and circumstances to others to make sure that we are doing better than they are.
A 2008 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that 12% of all of our thoughts are comparative in nature.[ii] And comparison almost never ends well. While comparison can create motivation for improvement, recent studies have found that people who regularly compare themselves to others have feelings of deep dissatisfaction, guilt, or remorse and can even lead to destructive behaviors.[iii]
Fortunately for us, there are a plethora of ways to combat our comparative ways! One method is the simple, under-utilized, and yet massively powerful practice of gratitude. Simple actions like verbally sharing our gratitude with others or merely writing down the things that we are grateful for can have great effects on our well-being, including blocking toxic emotions like envy, resentment, regret, and depression.
Interested in learning more?
I dive deeper into the science of comparison, gratitude, and a whole host of other pertinent topics in my book Redefining Success.
Redefining Success is all about achieving greater happiness, fulfillment, and alignment in life around the things that matter to you! The book is the combination of a plethora of amazing interviews, extensive scientific research, and my own personal experience. My work has shown that we each need to define what “success” means for ourselves because if we don’t live aligned with our own definition of success, happiness and fulfillment will remain elusive no matter how much we accomplish in life.
Redefining Success is currently available for preorder HERE. Those that purchase through the preorder get early access to book content, the ability to join my author community, acknowledgement in the book, and a signed copy of the book.
[i] Solnick, S.J. and Hemenway, D. (1998) Is More Always Better? A Survey on Positional Concerns. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 37, 373-383. https://www.albany.edu/~gs149266/Solnick%20&%20Hemenway%20(1998)%20-%20Positional%20concerns.pdf