Comparison Culture

Sundar Mohan Rao

WHEN I VISITED INDIA after working in the U.S. for a decade, it struck me that people seemed happy, despite harsh living conditions.

How could that be? “People compare themselves with others,” my brother said to me. “That’s human nature. If they’re better off than their immediate community, they’re happy. It doesn’t matter how bad their situation may be compared to more prosperous countries.”

That made sense. I was making the mistake of applying U.S. yardsticks of prosperity to their lives, and wondering how they could be so happy with so little.

From childhood on, there’s constant pressure to compare ourselves to others and to aspire to the things that seem to make them happy. No wonder corporate advertisers always show happy, smiling customers enjoying their company’s products. The inference is that buying these products will make the rest of us happy, too. Social media makes matters worse.

In an interview, legendary investor Warren Buffett talked about the home he bought in Omaha in 1958 and why he still loves it. “I’m happy there,” Buffett said. “I’d move if I thought I’d be happier someplace else. I’m warm in the winter, I’m cool in the summer, it’s convenient for me. I couldn’t imagine having a better house.”

Obviously, Buffett isn’t comparing himself to other billionaires, who often have more homes than they can count on one hand. Buffett knows who he is, what makes him happy and isn’t influenced by what others do. But many of us aren’t nearly so level-headed. It’s hard not to compare ourselves to others.

Comparison culture is also pervasive among investors. When the “magnificent seven” stocks outperform the broad market, investors often struggle to feel happy with their portfolio—unless, of course, they’re heavily invested in these highflying stocks.

Still, comparison doesn’t have to work to our detriment. When I compare myself to others, there are always some folks who are better off than me, no matter what metric I use—money, looks, abilities, you name it. If I compare myself to them, I’m not going to be happy.

But if I can learn from their success and find ways to improve myself, comparison starts to work to my advantage. Similarly, there are many who are worse off than me. When I compare myself to them, I feel blessed—and it inspires me to find ways to help others.

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