Words by Andy Orris
1,826 billionaires are alive today. A billion dollars is unfathomable wealth, and those wielding it are too many to cram into the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House. We also have over 16 million millionaires, or enough to fill the Rungnado May Day Stadium, largest on Earth, over 106 times.
But we tend to ignore this. We are hungry for comparison, but extreme examples of social inequality seem too distant to worry about, so we focus on the coworker in the next cubicle getting that raise we just know we deserve more, or the neighbor with the new car in the driveway. We depersonalise comparisons on the big scale, instead fabricating battles with those who we can connect with most. Effectively, we make enemies out of friends.
This tendency extends beyond wealth, seeping into almost all areas of life. Our world is made up of every possible person, with people who we could never better, right down to people we could never descend.
So why compare at all? Research suggests that we use comparison as a tool to make ourselves feel better. We feel happiest and most accomplished when better than those around us. Not when we reach our own objective goals, or when we are the best in our profession. Just relatively better. It works in the reverse too: a millionaire in a billionaires club could be more depressed than someone in poverty.
We are so eager to determine our self-worth through this game of comparison that we are willing to leave a job, quit a sport, or end a friendship when someone too near to us has it too good. It won’t happen immediately, but it might be why we’re not as close to that person anymore, or why we’re losing interest in a particular pursuit.
It’s not an indictment, it’s human nature. We’re more aware of those closest to us, but there’s something else here; something more troubling. Scarcity. Scarcity is at the root of this need for comparison. We don’t just playfully compete with those close to us, we act as if their happiness means less happiness available for us. It’s a zero sum game.
There is a personal cost to this way of living, manifest in bitterness and jealousy. There is also a societal cost. We exhaust ourselves fabricating local battles to the point that we have no energy or interest left over for the big stuff. The stuff that really matters. Ecuador is fast destroying its remaining rainforest, selling it off to China for mining to honor debts, and with this sale we will forever lose a global treasure of biodiversity and beauty too valuable to fathom. Yet the world moves on. We sleep well at night. Only when our neighbor unlawfully damages a tree on our own property do we demand justice and engage in a battle.
The way out of this bitter game comparison is, according to acclaimed social researcher Dr. Brene Brown, through vulnerability. Rather than fabricating battles that drive separation, we must be courageous and honest and open and come together to heal. In her book Daring Greatly she writes:
…we’re angry and scared and at each other’s throats. It’s not just the larger culture that’s suffering: I found the same dynamics playing out in family culture, school culture, and community culture. And they all share the same formula of shame, comparison, and disengagement. Scarcity bubbles up from these conditions and perpetuates them until a critical mass of people start making different choices and reshaping the smaller cultures they belong to.
So next time you find yourself side-swiped by jealousy, angry about feeling unnoticed, or perhaps just a bit too eager to compare, take a moment to question it. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and sincere, and rather than falling for the comparison game, channel your energy toward candid reflection and openness. Find like-minded people to support you; people who practice kindness, positivity and activism. Connect with a charity, union, or political party that is invested in the the bigger battles. Most importantly, treasure those close to you, help them every chance you get, and understand their joy as your own.
Andy Orris is a writer and podcaster based in Sydney. His website is Dudes and Cars.