Compare down, not up

4th January 2008 at 00:00
The battle to keep up with the Joneses is a dangerous one. Take stock of everything you have and be realistic, says Oliver James.

Tis the season to be taking stock. Last year is toast, what will this one bring - promotion, a more exciting love life or a new kitchen? Whatever, beware of how and what you compare your lot with. It's only natural to compare how you're doing in all aspects of life, but how you do so, with whom and how often are hugely important for your mental state.

A study of nearly 1,000 employees in a variety of occupations showed that job satisfaction and well-being were much lower in those whose main focus for comparison was people doing better than they were. Upward comparers also spent more time comparing, per se, and restlessly searched for new jobs - both signs of dissatisfaction.

Upward comparison is essential in order to learn how to improve performance, but it carries risks. It's OK to compare your looks with Kate Moss or golfing scores with Tiger Woods, so long as you "discount" and say: "Of course, Kate Moss has got all day to go to the gym and to have facials" or "Tiger Woods has been practising since he was five". Without those provisos, you could just feel like a failure.

Equally, comparing downwards you need to be nourished by feeling better off. Studies of cancer patients show that almost however dire their condition, they will improve their mood by saying: "Thank goodness I'm not like that woman in bed nine whose husband left her for his secretary".

Depressed people compare more and do so in a damaging way. When they look up, they say: "I'll never be like Kate Moss or Tiger Woods", feeling an undiscounted humiliation. Looking down, they say: "she may be less attractiveworse at golf" but then proceed to make disastrous discounts at exactly the moment when one is not advisable - "if they just went on a diethad a few golf lessons, they'd be more attractiveplay better than me".

Destructive, depressive comparing is the great curse of our time, a symptom of the affluenza virus of placing too high a value on money, possessions, appearances and fame, which afflicts the English-speaking world. It is a significant reason why one-quarter of English speakers have suffered a mental illness in the past 12 months, compared with only 11.5 per cent of mainland Western Europeans.

Nowhere is it more apparent than in the English-speaking classroom. Pupils are encouraged constantly to compare their performance with more successful peers. Whole schools are compared with other schools in league tables, which do not "discount" for superior performance. If you work in a sink estate comprehensive and compare its performance with Eton without allowing for the fact that Eton has selected pupils from ultra-privileged homes and has massive resources, you will be liable to feel depressed about your school's performance.

As a teacher, you are under unprecedented pressure to keep up with the other teaching Joneses. By requiring teachers to teach to exams and assessing them on pupil grades, the Government has done its best to encourage upward comparison within schools, as well as between them.

Furthermore, once you get home there is huge pressure to judge your well-being by virus values. The real income of the average person has not increased at all since the 1970s in the English-speaking world, yet consumption expectations have risen dramatically. This is partly because, for several decades, we have spent twice as much as mainland Europe, per capita, on advertising, making us prone to upward consumption comparison.

Conflating real needs with confected wants turns us into consumption junkies, making us work harder and often against our wishes. Nearly all the increase in average household wealth since the 1970s has been due to dual-income earning, yet survey after survey shows that most parents wish they could spend more time at home with their children when small.

Your motto for 2008 must be "Compare down, not up"

Oliver James's latest book The Selfish Capitalist - Origins of Affluenza is on sale.


Study of 1,000 employees: Brown, DJ et al, 2007, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Volume 102, Issue 1, pp 59-75

Depressed comparing: James, OW, 1998, Britain on the Couch, Arrow, pp 54-72.

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