We’ve all made decisions about our work lives that don’t match up with who we are and what we genuinely desire. “TGIF” only succeeds as a phrase because society leans that unhealthy way.
But why? There are myriad reasons, of course, which I’ll continue to unpack in my posts to come, but I can dash off the top reason without even pausing to think:
Social comparisons. Hands down.
In my college students, my alumni, my career coaching clients and myself, I see the guiding role of social comparisons in career and work-life choices on a daily basis.
Which is problematic in the extreme since, research shows, looking around and judging our choices based on decisions made by others is a sure route to regret, envy, guilt, yearning, and defensiveness, among other seedy emotions. And I’d argue that many of those emotions are bull’s eye centered on our paid work in particular.
So how can we clear the comparison scourge and make way for work lives that fulfill and stretch us? I turned to the research to find out.
Why Social Comparisons Kill Our Work Dreams
First, let’s step back and consider why social comparisons affect our decisions about career so intensely.
Social comparisons are tricky little devils. For one, they’re built into our psychology and then reinforced by society: we naturally determine value in relative terms, not absolute ones, and schools and other social institutions capitalize on that natural tendency. While we can train ourselves out of thinking about success and worth relatively, as we’ll discuss shortly, it takes a good deal of conscious effort. Thinking absolutely simply isn’t our norm.
Secondly, social comparisons can have a massive upside: they can bring us joy…IF we’re the person with the perfect resume or the immaculate personal life relative to someone else. And let’s be honest here: in each and every domain of life, there’s always someone you’re besting.
Social comparisons can feel so good that we can get hooked on them as our source of self-worth, and we don’t even realize we’re doing it:
Feeling fed up with the drudge job? Our mind wanders to our friend who hasn’t landed any paying work in the past six months.
Feeling crappy about a new haircut? Our finger clicks through Dropbox to that photo of our curly-haired friend on an extremely humid day.
Feeling icky about lack of direction? We prod someone even more directionless into telling us her woes — again.
The problem is, using this strategy to feel good comes at a heavy price: we end up feeling badly about ourselves most of the time, as Dartmouth researchers found:
“Frequent social comparisons may, in the short-term, provide reassurance. But in the long-term they may reinforce a need to judge the self against external standards.”
— Judith White, Ph.D., and colleagues
Comparing ourselves becomes an addiction, and an insidious one at that. We end up scrambling around Facebook, desperate for a hit of “I’m rocking life compared to that person,” but in the process are exposed to a whole lot of “wow, that person is doing so much better than me.”
That’s why the following three steps to quitting social comparisons are vital to the pursuit of work that is fulfilling and most truly “us.”
Step 1. Set Internal Standards for Self-Worth
Getting clear on what you care about and then prioritizing your life around those values makes social comparisons less relevant, as the researchers found:
“People who are uncertain of their self-worth, who do not have clear, internal standards, will engage in frequent social comparisons.”
— White and colleagues
In other words, if you believe that “success” results from meeting YOUR goals — not the goals of your parents, friends, teachers, or “society” at large — you’ll be less likely to succumb to the agony of social comparisons.
The “how” for this step comprises most of my blog posts from the past and my work as a teacher and a coach, so it’s fair to conclude that the process of creating internal standards cannot be boiled down neatly here.
That said, you can begin today by simply writing down what you care about most, in a stream of consciousness manner — such as having freedom, connecting with friends, spending time with family, having financial stability, acting creatively, and so on. Then return to the list daily over the coming seven to ten days to add to and edit it, working to also prioritize as you go (tip: putting each item on an index card or scrap of paper can make the process faster and easier). You’ll know you’re done when you haven’t made any changes for three days running.
This reflective exercise takes less than five minutes a day, and I’ve personally seen it be life altering.
Step 2. Practice Mindfulness
There are two ways we can view ourselves: subjectively (from the inside out) or objectively (looking at ourselves as if we’re an object). People who do the latter engage in more frequent social comparisons and thus feel less content, according to research:
“Viewing one’s self objectively cuts one off from mindful experience, resulting in mindlessness. Not only are we holding the self still, in order to view it objectively, but also we are holding still the dimension on which we are making the comparison. In a mindless state, a person automatically accepts the positive or negative consequences of a social comparison.”
— White and colleagues
Furthermore, when we’re proceeding through life mindlessly, we’re less likely to notice when we’re turning to social comparisons to serve as a mood booster. In other words, mindfulness provides two ways to quit social comparisons — a pretty powerful cocktail indeed.
As we’re all aware by now, there are many ways to practice mindfulness, including meditating, engaging in mindful walking, or even simply remaining aware of small details while eating or dressing.
If you’re new to mindfulness meditation in particular — an approach that makes no spiritual claims and has been shown to decrease stress, anxiety, and blood pressure —Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Wherever You Go, There You Areis a great starting point.
Interestingly, researchers note that making social comparisons may causemindlessness, so you’ll need to reconnect with a mindful viewpoint daily to keep things in check. It will be well worth the effort, as the researchers found:
“In a mindful state, the same social comparison information can have a completely different meaning, and thus different consequences.”
— White and colleagues
Step 3. Schedule Activities that Bring You Flow and Meaning
There is a bit of chicken-and-egg happening here, but studies show that if you can “find happiness,” you may be less tempted to look at the friend who is climbing the career ladder and has the uber-family to boot. And less affected if you do.
Unhappy people make more frequent comparisons and take them more to heart in comparison to happy people.
Of course we could fill 15 bajillion posts on the question of how to “find happiness,” but I’ll stick with the psychology-based answer I strongly believe: lasting happiness comes not from fleeting pleasures, but from structuring your life around endeavors that are personally meaningful and that frequently plunge you into a state of flow. And given that we spend about a third of our lives doing paid work, I strongly advocate for not just looking for happiness in our hours of recreation, but also actively creating a work life filled with purpose. One that is not ruled by social comparisons, but rather by your personal sense of mission.
I’ve seen many people make such a career a reality for themselves. I’ve experienced it in my own life. Is it easy? No. Does it happen quickly? Of course not. Do you retain it forever once you’ve found it? I wish. But implementing the three steps here is genuinely a great — and tangible — way to start.
What role have social comparisons played in your decisions about career? I'd love to hear your comments here or on Medium
White, J. B., Langer, E. J., Yariv, L., & Welch, J. (2006). Frequent social comparisons and destructive emotions and behaviors: The dark side of social comparisons. Journal of Adult Development, 13, 36–44.