The Upside of Social Comparison

Like many things, social comparison can be wielded for good or for bad.

In her book, The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky dedicates an entire section to the topic of social comparison. If we are thinking “I’ll be happy when I get a better car than the Jones'” then we are indulging in one of the myths of Happiness (I’ll be happy if/when). But there is a positive side to social comparison. Competition can inspire us go push ourselves further than we ever thought we could go. ‘Just look at the Olympics. Due to fierce competition, human beings have pushed themselves to feats previously believed to be impossible.

There is another kind of social comparison that is inspirational. When we look at someone who had fewer opportunities than we but has excelled in the face of adversity. At the 2009 TedMed conference in San Diego, Paralympian Aimee Mullins purports that the only real obstacle she had to overcome was other people’s perceptions of her living without legs as a disability. In her speech, she said, “The question isn’t whether or not you’re going to meet adversity, but how you’re going to meet it” As a man with two legs, it is hard to look at this amazing woman and not be inspired. I highly recommend viewing her speech (click here).

I find that the words “I can’t” get stuck in my throat when I watch Butch Lumpkin playing golf with no arms. I remember that success means getting up one more time than you fall when I watch Nick Vujicic do just that with no arms AND no legs (check out his website: )

And Reba and Lori Schappel can literally turn our concept of happiness on its head. Though twins, they claim to be exact opposites of one another. Reba is somewhat introverted and likes to sing country music. Lori is the outgoing one. She works in a hospital and hopes one day to marry and have children. One thing they DO have in common is their head. Reba and Lori are conjoined twins connected at the skull. The women report that they are very happy and cannot imagine why anyone would want to separate them. As Dan Gilbert points out in his book, Stumbling On Happiness, if they say they are happy – who are we to argue?

What I do know is that in these amazing stories of physical challenges I find myself inspired. I feel even more grateful to have two arms, two legs, ten fingers, ten toes and one head. I wonder if I have maximized my potential. When I look at these amazing people, I know I can do more and be more. Not for petty praise but to simply be the best human being I can be.

Frank Clayton
Licensed Professional Counselor

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