The gal who built the bigger business. The guy who got promoted first. All the people at the gym who out-run, out-lift, and, um, out-physical appearance me.
Since competition is inevitable, comparisons are inevitable.
Why? According to people much smarter than me — which admittedly doesn’t narrow the field by much — humans aren’t just social. We’re ultrasocial: constantly evaluating our relationships and social status among individuals and groups, even people or groups with whom we don’t actually have relationships. (Hi, Instagram!)
As a result, we know where we stand. We know where we want to stand. And we know, to a greater or lesser degree depending on personality and circumstance, who stands higher.
Which sometimes means we resent the people who seem to be more accomplished. More successful. More something.
If that sounds like you — because despite my best efforts, it sometimes sounds like me — don’t feel bad. A 2020 study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science found that feelings of low social status result in experiencing significant stress and has a negative impact on physical and emotional wellbeing. The opposite is also true. Higher social status reduces stress, improves wellbeing, and just plain feels good. (Think about how it feels when you know you’re not just a part of a group, but an important part of that group.)
In short, we’re built to compare — because we’re built to not just care about, but to seek to improve our social status.
Which is why a little schadenfreude can feel good.
In simple terms, schadenfreude is pleasure or self-satisfaction derived from someone else’s misfortune. Sounds crappy, but again, we can’t help it: a 2014 study published in PLOS One detected schadenfreude in two year-olds.
Partly the sensation is due to what social scientists call “inequity aversion.” We like fairness. We like justice.
Say you know someone you feel ranks higher on the social status scale than they should. And that person makes a mistake. Or experiences a little misfortune. Or for whatever reason appears to fall down the rankings. In spite of our best selves, seeing that happen sometimes feels kinda good.
If only because their fall on the pecking order automatically raises us up. Their loss is our “win.”
Taken to extremes, that’s why Bob seems to spend all his time trying to find fault with others instead of improving his own performance. That’s why Steve spends all his time gossiping about other people’s failures instead of trying to achieve his own goals.
If I’m down, Bob is up. If you’re down, Steve is up.
Even though neither Bob nor Steve did anything, worked for anything, or accomplished anything.
A little schadenfreude? That’s natural. That’s healthy. That’s human.
Because success is rarely a zero-sum game.
And because the best success doesn’t come at the expense of others.
The most successful entrepreneurs? They love when other people succeed, because they know the pie is big enough for everyone. (Forget the current pie; their goal is to create new pies.)
They see the success of other entrepreneurs as exciting, inspirational, and proof that hard work and innovation really do pay off.
The most successful leaders? They spend all their time developing the skills of their employees, building better teams, and making the people around them better — not on seeking to undermine the reputation and standing of the people they “compete” with.
The people who build lasting relationships? Their happiness, in part, comes from seeing the people they care about succeed. Their happiness is, in part, derived from the happiness of others.
A little schadenfreude is not only natural, it’s healthy.
Knowing that even the most accomplished people sometimes mess up reminds us that we’re all human. That we’re all the sum of our parts, and that many of those parts are imperfect.
But a lot of schadenfreude is a problem, because it shifts our attention from the only comparisons that really matter.
The person you were yesterday, the person you want to be today… and the person you want to be tomorrow.