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Lojong Slogan 38 - Downward Social Comparison

I recently presented some research at the International Symposium on Contemplative Sciences, a conference that brings together scientists and contemplative people from many traditions.  The study tested a variety of methods people could use to make themselves feel better as they move through the world.  One in particular is called by social psychologists "downward social comparison."  In brief, it is expected that one way we can bolster our sense of self-esteem is by noticing that we are better off than others.  For example, a classic study found that people who had been diagnosed with breast cancer overwhelmingly spontaneously thought of ways they were superior to or better off than others.  It doesn't require an extreme situation, however. When we are having a bad day and we see a homeless person, one reaction we might have is to feel better about ourselves because at least we're not homeless.  This is obviously not the only reaction one could have, but it is considered within this framework to be a valuable strategy.

Compare this, however, with Lojong slogan #38:  "Dont seek others' pain as the limbs of your own happiness."  Buddhist teachings usually point at a deep truth, while not necessarily negating other truths.  This slogan doesn't say that downward social comparison doesn't work.  It says don't do it.  Why not?

One reason is that it is not stable.  If your happiness and well-being rely on feeling better off than someone else, then you're in trouble.  Everything is always changing and these relationships of better/worse are not stable.

Similarly, what we care about changes too.  One body of research has examined how humans are on what can be called a hedonic treadmill.  When we get something that we think will make us happy, do we stay happy?  Only for a short time.  After a while we get used to having it and return to our baseline level of happiness.  Then we need a new thing to make us happier again.  So even if you stay better off than someone, it will soon stop making you feel good and you'll need something else to boost your happiness again.

In our study, we asked college students to walk around the halls of our building for 12 minutes and to consider how they were better off than the other people they saw.  The theory suggests that when they returned to our lab they should feel happier, less anxious, and have greater life satisfaction.  We did not find that.  Thus, when not under a direct threat, downward social comparison may not actually provide any benefit.

Nonetheless, maybe there is some long-term benefit.  What happens when we compare ourselves to others habitually?  Because humans learn from their experiences, if we try using downward social comparison and it makes us feel better once, we are highly likely to continue using this strategy in the future.  Unfortunately, in a study of normal adults, those who habitually compared themselves to others more also had greater envy, guilt, defensiveness, regret, having unmet cravings, and lied more to protect the self.  Doesn't sound so useful, does it?

Consider the implications of this study.  If you initially felt better by comparing yourself to someone worse off, you are likely to keep doing it.  If you keep doing it, you ultimately feel worse.  How will you react to feeling worse?  By continuing to use downward social comparison, because previously this made you feel better.  That is, the short-term gains hide the long-term harms.  This, in Buddhist terms, is a classic example of dukkha.

The slogan doesn't say you can't feel better by noticing how others are in worse situations (or by doing things to help make them feel bad).  It says you shouldn't.  Why not?  Because the long-term outcomes won't be what you thought you were getting.  Dont seek others' pain as the limbs of your own happiness.


Photo credit: HERE


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