Happiness is inherently relative. You may see a top business manager earning a salary that puts her in the top 1% of earners worldwide. She should be happy to be in such a privileged place in the world. But she is not likely comparing herself to the rest of the world, but rather to her surroundings, perhaps her closest “competitors”. If she is earning that kind of salary, she is likely living in an affluent part of an affluent city in an affluent country. If her neighbour down the street is earning more than her, she may not be so content with that 1% status. If that same manager earns a 5% raise, she may be delighted, but if she then learns that her colleague earned a 10% raise, her delight might quickly turn into disappointment, or even anger. The fact of the matter is that we always compare ourselves to others. Businesspeople do it. Elite athletes do it. Although it can be motivating, it can also deeply undermine our achievements and subvert our happiness.
Bronze or Silver?
If you were to compete in the Olympics, would you rather win a silver medal or a bronze medal? Counterintuitively, a bronze medal may be better for your mental well-being. In a 1995 study, three psychologists examined the faces of athletes winning silver and gold medals, and overall, bronze medallists appear far happier than silver medallists. The main reason for this, they conclude, is the idea of alternative outcomes. For silver medallists, it is easier for them to compare themselves to the gold medallist. In their minds, that was a viable alternative outcome. Put that in contrast to bronze medallists. For them, it is very easy to imagine getting fourth place. Thus, they are often extremely relieved that they are not missing the podium. Instead of going home with nothing, they are thrilled to be going home with a medal. The psychologists proved this by examining the faces of athletes at the moment of finishing the race. The silver medallists are disappointed, while the bronze medallists celebrate almost as much as the gold medallists.
Perspective is Everything
If you are near the top of your profession, always strive to improve, but stop comparing yourself to the absolute peak of your profession. You will always be disappointed. I myself have made that commitment in recent years, and it has helped me accept myself while improving my motivation. My mentor is a decade older than me, but I still constantly compared myself to where he was at my age. I was constantly disappointed with myself, because I never measured up to his achievements. But there is a reason why this man is my mentor. He is exceptionally good at his profession, among the best in the world. Instead of comparing myself to him, I should rather be comparing myself to my peers, those below me in the rankings. And in my case, that means those who were not lucky enough to be selected as a mentee. When I do that, I find contentment, which fuels my motivation even further. When I spent too much time comparing myself to him, I demotivated myself, until, of course, he pointed out that I was shooting myself in the foot. As he said to me, “I am good at what I do, but I don’t compare myself to Jeff Bezos for a reason”.