“Money can’t buy you happiness” is a platitude we’re all familiar with, and one that has been proven incorrect time and again. Money can buy you happiness in the form of a comfortable living space, a reliable car, and a reduction in financial-related stress. And money can deliver happiness in the form of unnecessary luxuries, such as “self-love” pampering sessions, soul-nourishing travel, or a nice seafood dinner on a whim.
A 2010 study conducted by a trio of psychologists reinforced that money can buy you emotional well-being. What’s particularly interesting about their findings, though, is that they discovered a person’s degree of happiness correlates with whether or not they earn more than their peers. That’s all fine and dandy until you’re the person with a leaner salary, or until you’re the person who’s sweating bullets in an effort to maintain your lead.
You can also extrapolate the above findings into other aspects of living: romantic relationships, career success, appearance, friendships, likes, hearts, and follows. Call it what you will—one-upmanship, keeping up with the Joneses, friendly competition—many of us are striving to outdo our neighbors and peers to the point of mental and emotional exhaustion. [Editor’s Note: if you want to focus on what you’ve got, try the Appreciation pack.] Dr. Marika Lindholm, a sociologist who specializes in self-care and well-being, posited that this competitiveness is particularly profound in U.S. culture. “For example, in a kindergarten class, an American child will be rewarded for cleaning up the quickest, whereas in a less individualistic culture, such as Japan, groups of students collaborate for rewards,” she said. “We are raised to measure success through trophies and grades when we are young, and then our cars, houses, and jobs when we are adults. How we feel about ourselves is linked to external rewards.” Consider the number of competitive reality TV shows offered on a nightly basis. Watching “The Bachelor,” “The Voice,” or “Survivor” may seem innocent enough, but they’re centered on squashing the success of others for personal gain. While it’s easy to acknowledge the silliness of these shows and recognize that they’re not grounded in actual reality, they still normalize overt competitiveness.
While it’s perfectly OK to want to perform at your personal best, constantly comparing yourself to others—whether you come out “winning” or not—can be incredibly detrimental to your physical and mental health, notes Dr. Kathryn Smerling, a New York City-based psychologist. “Some clear signs that you’ve gone too far with competition include never giving yourself enough credit, or feeling like nothing is ‘working’; feeling empty inside and always chasing the next thing; and never giving yourself time to appreciate what you’ve already done,” says Smerling. “It’s also reached a point of unhealthiness if you constantly engage in self-criticism, or if you have made improvements but fail to acknowledge them and are dissatisfied with yourself.” A more overt sign of keeping up with the Joneses too much includes risking the financial well-being of yourself or others for a material object. “High rates of bankruptcy are often the expression of a family’s decision to buy the unaffordable home, car, or luxury item that leaves them dangling in a precarious economic situation,” says Lindholm. “The lure of having what someone else has can override common sense. Instead of rational decisions, the joy of keeping up leads to very bad choices.” There’s no denying that the initial rush of “winning” can bring satisfaction—getting a promotion, earning an MVP award for the quarter, or buying a new house can bring a sense of genuine pride and happiness. But if you’re often looking over your shoulder at what your co-workers, peers, and neighbors are doing, you’re less likely to feel satisfied in the long term.
To address something that’s so ingrained isn’t easy, but it can be done. You can start by acknowledging what you’re grateful for each day, and by setting personal goals that involve only you. “If you set targets that are meaningful and truly important to you, then you’ll be less focused on the achievements of others,” said Smerling. “You’re your own competition; aim to outdo yourself. That’s the best way to redirect overly competitive behavior.” Another way to redirect an overly-competitive mentality is to participate in activities that help others. Volunteer for a local nonprofit, make it a goal to do something selfless once a day, or channel your competitive nature into a charity sports team. Also—and this is a big one—take occasional breaks from social media to acknowledge that what’s being presented on your feeds is likely a curated, hyper-realistic presentation of someone’s life. “Using these sites obsessively leads you to feel like you always have to position yourself as better than the next person,” says Smerling. “On their death beds, humans universally value their relationships and connection to others. They don’t talk about their cars or shoe collection,” says Lindholm. “Work on nurturing human connections. Be generous and make more time for the people in your life. The rewards will be far greater than any short-lived feeling one gets from buying that oversized television or latest iPhone.”