Downward Social Comparison – Makes You Feel Good, Pisses Off Kids

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There are many different ways to get a feeling of happiness. Some are better than others – the happiness that comes from friendship is more durable than the happiness that comes from power.

Is the same true of gratitude?

There are many different ways to get a feeling of gratitude. On Saturday, Ciara wrote of her belief that the gratitude that comes from the social comparison is less durable than the gratitude that comes from non-social comparison.

Social comparison: I am grateful that my house is bigger than my neighbors.
Non-social comparison: I am grateful I have a house (compared to not having a house).

At a glance, it doesn't look like there’s a difference.

In one study, two groups were asked to complete a gratitude journal. One group was asked to write down ways in which they were better off than others, the other to write down things for which they are grateful for having.

Both groups experienced a similar change in gratitude and positive emotion.1

Likewise, research from social psychology suggests that comparing yourself to those worse off generates positive emotion, “Wow! I have a job and my neighbor doesn't.  I’m so grateful, I’m happy.”2

However, there are three important caveats.

1) A downward social comparison is correlated with pride, “Wow! I have a job and my neighbor doesn’t. I must be smarter, I’m happy.”2 Personally, I don’t think pride is a sin – I think many people could use more of it. However, having too much of it can be dangerous.  In addition, there is some evidence that downward social comparison can reduce empathy.3 If you’re worried, there are tons of other ways to cultivate gratitude.

2) In certain situations with certain people, the downward social comparison makes people feel worse. Rather than thinking, “Wow! I’m so lucky to have a job,” they think, “Wow! There are so many people getting laid off. What’s to stop that from happening to me?” The good news is that there’s no subconscious trickery going on – you’ll know if social comparison works for you. Does it make you think happy thoughts or unhappy ones?

3) It pisses kids off.

Recall Ciara's story,

My youngest children often complain about how they don’t have an iPad and their friends do or how it’s not fair that John got a new PC for Christmas and the laptop allocated for their use at home is so old it won’t even play Minecraft. I get irritated and angry that my children can be so selfish and greedy.

So I start by telling them to be grateful for what they have, “there are so many children in the world that have no electronics or that don’t even have enough to eat.” And when they complain about having to walk to school or about bringing the dog for a walk, I tell them to think about the boy who lives around the corner from us who only has one leg. But then I realized I’m making the same mistakes as my parents.

Let’s think about this for a moment.

What I see in this story isn’t an attempt by Ciara to make her kids more grateful and happier, but to get them to shut up and stop complaining.

Sort of like when Mom used to tell me to eat my veggies, “because there are starving children in India.” She wasn’t trying to get me to better appreciate my veggies. She wanted me to shut up and eat. Which is understandable – veggies are good and complaining is annoying.

But if the goal is to cultivate gratitude and appreciation, the downward social comparison fails. Kids are self-centered. “People are starving in India? Huh? Why should I care?” For a kid, forced gratitude doesn't equal happiness, it equals shut up and stop complaining.

However, there’s an incredibly simple and effective way that you can nurture gratitude in children, without any hint of coercion.

What went well?

From Martin Seligman's recollection of a successful positive education program,4 implemented in Australia,

Like all Geelong Grammar six-year-olds, Kevin starts his day in a semicircle with his uniformed first-grade classmates. Facing his teacher, Kevin shoots his hand up when the class is asked, “Children, what went well last night?” Eager to answer, several first graders share brief anecdotes such as “We had my favorite last night: spaghetti” and “I played checkers with my older brother, and I won.”

Kevin says, “My sister and I cleaned the patio after dinner, and Mum hugged us after we finished.”

The teacher follows up with Kevin. “Why is it important to share what went well?”

He doesn’t hesitate: “It makes me feel good.”

“Anything more, Kevin?”

“Oh, yes, my mum asks me what went well when I get home every day, and it makes her happy when I tell her. And when Mum’s happy, everybody’s happy.”

As a parent, you don't get to choose what your kid focuses on – he’ll be grateful for the things he cares about – spaghetti, playing checkers, and getting dirty. Asking him what went well won't make him stop complaining about his veggies, but it will help him develop a more grateful person.


1. Froh, J. J., Sefick, W. J., & Emmons, R. A. (2008). Counting blessings in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being. Journal of School Psychology46(2), 213-233.2. Smith, R. H. (2000). Assimilative and contrastive emotional reactions to upward and downward social comparisons. Handbook of social comparison: Theory and research, 173-200.

3. Yip, J. J., & Kelly, A. E. (2013). Upward and downward social comparisons can decrease prosocial behavior. Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

4. Seligman, Martin E. P. (2011-04-05). Flourish (p. 93). Simon & Schuster, Inc. Kindle Edition.

Discover More of the Benefits of Gratitude

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2 thoughts on “Downward Social Comparison – Makes You Feel Good, Pisses Off Kids”

  1. This line: “People are starving in India? Huh? Why should I care?” For a kid, forced gratitude doesn’t equal happiness, it equals shut up and stop complaining.”

    So true. As a teacher, I’ve interacted with a lot of kids and I can tell you, it’s absolutely true. It’s just their stage of life; that’s how they are at the moment.

    You’re so right about making downward comparisons. I remember one time when I was telling a friend about some problems I was experiencing and he told me that at least I wasn’t like another person we knew. Something about that comment just didn’t sit right with me. Why should i only feel better by comparing myself to someone who has it worse? It just seemed wrong and reading this helped me figure out why I felt like that.

    Great post. It gives me a lot to think about.

  2. You make some good points and yes you are right the immediate motivator when telling my kids to be grateful for what they have may be to shut them up but as a parent there is more depth to that lesson.

    After writing the article I almost disagreed with my own argument. I thought it’s so easy for me to say, living in middle class suburbia. My life is good, but even better when compared to life in the slums of Delhi, or the Shanty Towns of Johannesburg. What if I were in an arranged marriage I was unhappy to be in but at least my husband didn’t beat me like my neighbours’. Maybe comparison is good. I want my children to understand our good fortune being born into a free society, living in a safe environment without daily threat of crime or disease. So maybe rather than it being a comparison between what we have and others lack, it could be a gratitude for what we have as opposed to how life could be. Circumstantial comparison rather than social comparison?


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