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Why we should stop comparing ourselves to others

Stephen Harper's like the brother who always comes out on top. Mom may not love him as much as the rest of us kids, but she can't help but admire his alpha quality. Iggy's the one who always makes Mom a nice cup of tea, even when he isn't asked to. Wimpy pleaser. Jack? Too earnest. And Elizabeth? We can't believe she's from the same family.

There's nothing like an election to see pecking order in action, to see comparisons made between Favoured Son and the rest of the brood. And who among us has not felt this personally, comparing oneself to a high-achieving sibling or friend?

We're hard-wired to make comparisons in many aspects of life, it seems, even though that's the very thing that breeds unhappiness.

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We compare incomes. We compare houses. Cars. Holiday destinations. Spouses. Kids. Who does what for a living. Comparison starts in the family dynamic, even when parents diligently try to avoid measuring one child against the other, experts say. Then come the school years. Grades. Who's at the top of the class? Who's at the bottom? Next: the workplace and its competition.

Comparison and competition form the engine of a successful, capitalist society. Which helps explain the popularity of reality shows, because they tap into our need to feel superior to others. But how can we all be happy in that societal context?

Recently, in the online writing community, award-winning author Karen Connelly mused on Facebook about how she had talked to another writer about the "juicy complex emotion" of jealousy in the publishing world. It's hard not to compare one's success (or lack of it) to the attention others get, especially when you feel your work is just as good. She invited comments. Some fellow writers said in the ensuing thread that they found the tendency to compare to others to be "excellent fuel." Novelist Susan Swan said it "was icky and embarrassing and it happens to all of us." Another offered that "you should look at other people's lives in their entirety, not just the good bits."

Gee, it reminded me of my early childhood, when I was the filling in the sibling sandwich, smack dab in the middle of five, which any psychiatrist will tell you means I struggled to find my place. Once, in high school, a teacher wondered aloud to me (in front of my mother) why I couldn't be as well-behaved as my elder sister. Thanks.

As a young mother in my 20s, I experienced hyper-comparison in the park and schoolyard, where women quietly rated addresses, husbands' jobs, parenting skills. I'll never forget the time a mother, whose son was a friend of one of my three boys, came to collect him at my house, and spent the whole time looking over my shoulder to check out my living room upholstery and the brand of my fridge. (Not Sub-Zero, by the way.)

What's weird is how buying into the ratings scale is an act of self-flagellation. Last May, researchers from the Paris School of Economics reported results from data they collected from the European Social Survey, covering 19,000 participants in 24 countries. Those who compared their incomes with others stated they were less happy, and responses showed that the greater the importance people attached to such comparisons, the lower they ranked themselves in terms of satisfaction with life and standard of living.

Furthermore, a comparison to their friends' incomes was more painful than that to those of work colleagues. Who doesn't nod his head in understanding over that one? A work-related comparison is an issue of fairness , one expert surmised. It can be addressed. A comparison to friends, on the other hand, could leave someone thinking that if others, who had the same background, have done better, they must be more competent. Why do you think high school reunions can be so painful?

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This is the stuff of life coaches and therapists. Their offices (and nicely-upholstered sofas) are filled with people trying to find the path that will make them happy - not by others' standards or expectations - but for themselves.

"As long as you're competitive, you're not self-motivated. You're other-motivated," comments Barbara Symmons, a 63-year-old psychotherapist in Toronto, who had to give it all up to find happiness. Her life was going swimmingly until her 40s, when she divorced and her mother became ill. "I felt I had lost my competitive edge," she says.

She fought against becoming angry and bitter by taking mindfulness courses, which helped her let go of measuring herself against others and focus more on her own capacity for excellence.

"All of my best friends from my youth are wealthy," she says. "…I love them, but if I can't go to Turkey with them, I'm not any less or more than they are. I have the nicest little city garden. I am happy."

The good news is that all the books about happiness, which often describe what's called an "authentic" sense of well-being, encourage people to acknowledge, but question, the pressure to achieve success by conventional, outward measures. "The fact that we're allowing ourselves to have the discussion about what makes you happy is evidence of a societal shift," notes Vicky Stikeman, a life and executive coach in Toronto who says that her most unhappy clients are overachievers who only focus on where they rank in the corporate pecking order. "The previous generation didn't do that. They often just did what was expected."

Age helps get over those expectations, of course. Live a bit, have a marriage, a divorce, some kids, a job loss, some success and some failures, and you begin to see that there's enough good fortune in the world for us all to get a little piece of it. It may not last. And it may not be the kind that anyone else can see. But who cares? It's there, and that should be enough.

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But don't tell that to Iggy.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More

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