The Comparison Trap: Am I Really Doing Worse Than Others?
BY: Arend Boersema, PHR, SHRM-CP

What drives the value of our human experience? It has been a question that has been on top of mind for me, especially since our world has been reduced to quick grocery runs and being confined to the place that used to function as a refuge after a long day out and about. Now it serves as a safe haven as we play our role in fighting this pandemic. It is the least we can do, but even this simple task of sitting at home is losing its long coveted charm now that it is all we can do.

It did not come as a surprise when I learned from Yale professor Laurie Santos in her class The Science of Well Being that our subjective experience of happiness is strongly driven by the comparisons we make. What we set up as a frame of reference determines mainly how we experience our own situation, regardless of the specifics of that particular situation. Even when we are trying to feel better about our own situation by looking at others that aren’t doing so well (be honest, we’ll all fallen for that trap), the impact on happiness and satisfaction is negligible because we are just bad at predicting what truly drives our experience of happiness.

“Growing up things were so much easier”

“Back in college I used to be in great shape”

“I do so much more work than my coworker does”

“It’s easy for you to say, you still have a job”.

No doubt you have either heard or said any of the statements above. If you are an HR professional and navigating through the pandemic, than the last one might especially hit home. Over these last couple of months many of the conversations I’ve had with employees, leaders, and colleagues were tough and reflections left me in a pickle. I struggled to make sense of the narrative companies and individuals used.

Many news articles had employees advocating for hazard pay, which I thought made sense, but I had a hard time marrying the anger that came along with that statement while at the same time so many people were without a job altogether. Employees expressed their struggle with balancing home schooling and work, which I can only begin to fathom how complicated this must be, but I admit that at times I had a hard time hearing them, thinking about all the healthcare workers that still had to come in to work and face possible exposure to a deadly virus. And when companies were making financial decisions to cut back on bonuses and annual increases, it left myself and colleagues devalued once receiving this message. “Didn’t I work extra hard during these months?!?” Comparing the budget cuts to my work ethic left me gob smacked, but at the same time I was also thankful for still having a job. The frame of reference I used when engaged in these experiences brought even more confusion and did not feel like it was helping me at all. 

Working Conditions

During this same time I stumbled upon this picture. Having lived in Belgium for
over 10 years and having studied European history in undergrad, this picture spoke a

thousand words. After the Second World War labor in Belgium was sparse. The Belgian government made an agreement with Italy as well as some other countries to provide skilled craftsman, causing mass immigration flows in Europe. In this picture you see primarily Italian immigrant workers packed in an elevator cube to be lowered into the coal mines.

Imagine being a skilled mason looking for a better opportunity to provide for you  and your family, and after a long trip to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, you are being told the only job you can do is working in a coal mine, under these horrendous conditions.

Am I sharing this to make you feel better about your current situation or to tell you to never ever complain about your work conditions? Most definitely not. Should we be counting our blessings for what we’ve got, regardless of how little it may seem? Perhaps.

Is There Such a Thing as Healthy Comparisons?

Dan Ariely, professor in psychology and behavioral economics and author of the book Predictably Irrational, provides great insights in the concept of relativity. Similar to professor Santos’ insights that happiness is driven by comparison, he empirically proves the argument that not only do we rely on comparisons to provide meaning and value, we tend to only compare things that are easily comparable. Scrolling through your social media feed you’ll notice vacations, fun activities, clean houses, perfect bodies, material possessions, smiling faces, and so on. And immediately, your brain triggers a comparison between these idealistic states flashing in front of you and your current state, sloughed on the couch in your pajamas with dirty dishes in the sink.

Is making comparisons therefore inherently bad? Not necessarily. The challenge comes, if you do decide to derive meaning from contrasts and similarities, to make sure you truly assess what is inherently valuable to you. Whether it is in how you measure up to others or how you compare to your old self, what are the criteria you use?

But reality remains; our natural tendency to make easy comparisons is strong and repeatedly encouraged by the environment we’re in. Needless to say this is prominent in marketing and sales, but as much so for other aspects of our lives. Take a recent study by Marc Effron and team for instance. This study on the fallacy of measuring employee engagement puts our normative rating, primarily derived from Gallup, in perspective. The study argues that the data Gallup shares on employees’ levels of engagement are lower than the actual experience employees have. This has a statistical significance, but has an even greater impact on our emotional experience.

The Solution

Perhaps, then, we should reconsider deriving meaning from comparisons. Perhaps, and this will sound crazy, the experiences we are having can stand on their own and they don’t need to be justified by contrasting them to other, similar or dissimilar, experiences. Like Brené Brown so brilliantly portrays in her short video on empathy vs. sympathy; hearing someone say they’re struggling with something, whether it is balancing work with home schooling, experiencing fear of being exposed to a virus, or feeling undervalued while working their hardest, our response should never start with “Well, at least…”.

And while this is true for our interactions with others, practicing empathy and discarding the urge to compare is even more needed for our internal interactions with ourselves. Feeling overwhelmed is justified. Feeling like you’re the only person who is having a hard time adapting to this new normal is probably incorrect, but still stands on its own as a legitimate experience. And the experience of gratitude for the safe haven we call home as well as the panic of feeling like the walls of your living room are closing in on you should both have an honorable mention when reflecting on the complexity of our experiences. Regardless of what others may say, or think, or share on social media.

About the Author

Arend Boersema was born in Indonesia, as a Dutch citizen. Lived in The Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland, to eventually end up on this side of the ocean and recently moved from Upstate New York (Rochester, NY) to Philadelphia, PA. He leads organizational development and culture change efforts as the Sr. Manager of HR Business Partner Services at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), and is an adjunct professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) teaching online graduate courses in the Human Resources Development program. Arend Boersema is also a thought leader content contributor to Philadelphia SHRM.

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