We have a catchphrase in our house. ‘What’s the fastest way to unhappiness?’ Cue, chorus: ‘Comparing ourselves to others.’
Generally, this is me directing an instruction at my teenage daughter as we slouch in front of the television watching impossibly glossy girls swapping boyfriends at dizzying speed in cult teenage hits Gossip Girl or 90210. ‘Is she thinner than me?’ No, darling. ‘Is she prettier than me?’ Of course not. ‘Is my hair as shiny as hers?’ Oh, shut up.
We all know peer envy is a perennial affliction of teenage girls but, according to research, it’s increasingly affecting every age group. I rather hoped I’d grown out of it, but the number of times my daughter trips me up with a neat piece of schadenfreude is terrifying. I don’t think of comparisons as envy – more as self-abuse. It’s what therapists call the negative, self-destructive cycle of ‘should’ or ‘ought to’ thinking (‘I ought to have more willpower around food’, ‘I should have a successful relationship’, etc). Just like her. Just like them.
The tendency to compare is what psychologist Oliver James describes as ‘aspirational madness’ and he’s convinced it’s behind the alarming rise in mental illness among teenagers, particularly girls.
Talk about a feel-bad culture. I guess they used to call it keeping up with the Joneses, but these days there’s not just a Jones next door, there’s one on every billboard and celebrity-driven magazine not to mention a host of them streaming through hyperspace straight into the privacy of our own front rooms. Even as a supposedly sensible and mature adult, I’m not immune to those images of pretty, happy, shiny people. Intellectually and rationally, I know they’re airbrushed beyond reality but emotionally, on a bad day, they make me feel terrible about myself. They even make the very people we compare ourselves to feel terrible about themselves. As former model Tyra Banks put it, ‘I disappoint people I meet in person because I don’t look like me’.
I was once on a photo shoot with the actress Jane Fonda, who refused to have her photographs retouched. ‘I want young women to know what old looks like,’ she said.
It’s not simply about image, it’s (inevitably) about money too. Say you got a pay rise. You’d be happy, right? Then you discover your colleague got a pay rise that’s twice the amount. Suddenly, what made you feel happy makes you feel bad because, obviously, you’re not good enough. There are inverse forms of comparison too. I see a woman on television, who is 10 years younger than me but looks 10 years older and I think, ‘Well, at least I look better than her’. Does it make me feel happier? No. It makes me feel like a bitch.
The psychologist Martin Seligman, who treated mental illness for 30 years, decided it was a blind alley and turned his attention to mental health instead. He concluded that a conscious, daily effort to feel grateful (he recommends keeping a gratitude journal) is top of the list for an emotionally healthier and happier life. He’s right. When I make a mental gratitude list, the world seems a kinder and more helpful place. So here’s the deal. We need to count our own blessings, rather than those of others.