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If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?
© 2015 Raj Raghunathan
the 2nd deadly happiness “sin”: the need for superiority
As a 3-year old toddler, my son went to a local day-care near our house. One day, after dropping him off, I was merrily on my way to work when I noticed that I had failed to leave behind his lunch box. Swearing under my breath (what is it about repeating a task that gets my goat?),1 I made a U-turn and drove back to the day care. Just as I was about to enter his class, I noticed through the glass pane on the door that all the kids, including my son, were sitting in a circle around the music teacher. I decided to observe what was going on. The teacher, with a guitar in his hand, was strumming the chords to a well-known song,2 encouraging the kids to join in. Like typical 3-year olds, most of the kids were horsing around, tickling each other and making funny noises. I was gratified to notice that my son, along with a few other kids, was paying full attention to the teacher.
The teacher was good, both musically and in terms of motivating the kids. He nodded enthusiastically at the kids who were singing and patiently attempted to get the other kids involved as well. Within minutes, however, it was clear that he wasn’t able to encourage the kids who were goofing off. He started focusing, through eye-contact and smiles, on the kids that were singing. It was at this point that I noticed something a little more subtle beginning to unfold. Among the kids who were singing, one was particularly good. (It wasn’t my son.) I noticed how this kid’s superior singing ability was beginning to affect the teacher’s response towards him. Although the teacher made eye-contact with all the kids who were singing, I could see that he was paying particular attention to this kid. Let’s call him Ben. The teacher’s eyes lingered a little longer on Ben. Ben also got a few more smiles, and the smiles grew bigger over time. Ben soon began noticing the teacher’s favorable response towards him and started putting even more effort into his singing, reinforcing a virtuous cycle. Within minutes, the other kids, including my son, noticed this development. One of the kids tried to emulate Ben, but alas, the talent just wasn’t there. As for my son, he became progressively quieter and eventually, by the end of the session, began horsing around like some of the other kids. In the few minutes that I observed this drama unfold, it was relatively obvious that Ben had emerged as the “teacher’s pet”: the most important kid in class.3
Even as children, we are exposed to feedback that, in subtle or not-so-subtle ways, pegs us as superior or inferior to others around us. In the story that I just recounted, the stakes weren’t high. My son wouldn’t have been denied food or otherwise punished for singing badly. Nevertheless, the teacher’s preferential treatment of Ben had a significant impact on him: he felt deflated enough to stop singing. Later that evening, my son would tell me that he wasn’t interested in singing because, “I am no good at it, daddy.” One can thus easily imagine the emotional impact that others’ judgments can have on us in situations in which the stakes are, in fact, high. Think, for example, of the impact that teachers’ and parents’ judgments have on high school kids who fail to get good grades. Or consider the impact of failing to acquire a girlfriend or boyfriend when everyone else has one (or more). Is it any surprise that self-esteem is at its lowest among high-school kids?4 And is it any surprise too, that middle age—which is when many of us are forced to acknowledge that we haven’t achieved as much as some of our peers have—is such a rough time?5
2.1 Reasons we seek superiority
The 2nd deadly happiness sin is chasing superiority—a sin that is at least partly the result of being socially conditioned to be better than others. We are conditioned by our parents, teachers, mentors, media—virtually everyone in society—to be the “best” at whatever we do.
But exactly why does everyone goad us to be superior? What’s in it for a parent if their son is the best at spelling bee or at basket weaving?
One reason is that, in our evolutionary past, superiority served a critical role: it enhanced our chances of survival. “Superior” people—those who were bigger, faster, stronger or wealthier—were more likely to survive.6 When a marauding tribe attacked a village, it was the fastest runner who had the best chance of surviving. Likewise, in times of famine and scarcity, it was the one with the most power and resources who had the best chance to survive. So, a big reason why everyone seeks superiority is because everyone is hardwired to do so. This also explains why our parents and caretakers push us to pursue superiority. As our “well-wishers,” they want us to have the best chance of surviving.
Of course, it’s not just from our parents that we learn about the importance of superiority; we learn about it from our teachers and employers too. We learn that valedictorians get better scholarships, CEOs get higher wages, and top entertainers get better deals and more magazine covers.7 We also learn about the importance of superiority from TV and magazines, which selectively cover stories of successes rather than failures.
One consequence of being conditioned, especially by those about whom we care a lot, to pursue superiority is that we come to tether our self-esteem to being superior. When we learn that the amount of love and attention that we get from others depends on how well we stack up to our peers, we internalize the need for superiority to such an extent that we seek it even if the others aren’t around to judge us.8 So, although we start seeking superiority as toddlers and kids to measure up to others’ standards, we end up seeking it later in life as adolescents and adults to measure up to our own standards.9 Thus, the need cuts into the very core of our being.
The need for superiority is also rooted in our desire to figure out whether we are making adequate progress towards cherished goals. As humans, one of our most important goals as humans is that of mastery10—the desire to become increasingly competent or effective at something we do. One way by which we can figure out whether we are getting better at something is by comparing ourselves with others. If we do something better than others, we feel that must be making progress; if, on the other hand, we do something worse than them, we feel that must be regressing or stagnating.11 So, apart from the desire for others’ approval and the desire for self-esteem, the need for mastery is another reason why we seek superiority.
There is yet another reason why we seek superiority: being “superior” gives us the autonomy or freedom to be who we are; findings show that higher status individuals don’t feel the need to watch what they say or otherwise restrict their behaviors. Those of lower status, by contrast, feel the pressure to be more accommodating.12
Thus, superiority is not just about survival. It is about many other things too. It is about the need for approval. It is about self-esteem. It is about mastery, and about autonomy. So, chasing superiority is not some shallow or superficial trait that only those with an unusually big “ego” or with a narcissistic personality exhibit. Rather, it is a deep-seated need that almost all of us pursue.
2.2 The many manifestations of the need for superiority
The pursuit of superiority manifests itself in myriad ways, some of which can be simultaneously funny and poignant. Consider the desperate attempts of those well past their prime, particularly as entertainers or athletes, to cling to the spotlight—a theme that is well-exploited in Billy Wilder’s classic, Sunset Boulevard. Or consider how Facebook “friends” tom-tom their achievements or selectively upload only their most flattering images.13 Unsurprisingly, findings show that exposure to such friends’ updates on Facebook triggers more negative feelings than positive ones.14 This is sad because, most people presumably want to feel happy for their good-looking and successful friends, but yet, they can’t help but feel jealous and envious of them.
The need for superiority seems alive and well even in contexts in which the whole point is to curb this need. If you have ever been to a meditation session, you surely recognize the “beatific one”? This is the person with the soft eyes and cherubic smile who pronounces in a cloyingly sonorous voice after the session that it was “awesome beyond words.” The subtle message of the beatific one is: I am better at meditation than you bro, so don’t even think of competing with me on spirituality! The need for superiority is also manifested in the tendency to affiliate oneself with those who are superior. As you may know, the propensity among students to wear their university’s jersey is higher when the university-team had won a game than when not.15 Why? Because it feels good to associate oneself with the “superior” team!
2.3 Does being superior make you happier?
If chasing superiority is so prevalent, surely being superior boosts happiness levels, right? Indeed, it does. Consider results from one study16 in which, as participants were given feedback that made them feel superior or inferior to others, researchers observed their facial expressions. Findings showed that participants made to feel superior displayed more positive expressions, while those made to feel inferior displayed more negative ones. So, at least immediately after getting feedback, it seems that being superior feels good.
But what about in the long-run? Are superior people happier over time? For example, are bosses happier than their subordinates?
This is a difficult question to answer for many reasons, including that people’s happiness depends on a number of factors other than superiority—such as lifestyle, opportunities, and responsibilities. There’s also the problem of reverse causation. Happy people are generally more successful17; so if findings show that bosses are happier than their subordinates, it may be because they were happier to begin with.
Even with all of these problems that make it difficult to ascertain the true relationship between superiority and happiness, it appears that being superior does enhance happiness levels. Perhaps the most convincing evidence of this relationship comes from one of the most influential set of studies in all of psychology, the famous “Whitehall” studies.18
Imagine that you are a lowly clerk working for the government of the United Kingdom. (Yes, life sucks.) On your paltry income, all you can afford is regular British food—meat and potatoes (not Tandoori chicken). The good news is that you have a lift in your flat, and the rent for your flat is paid by the government. Imagine further that the government also takes care of your medical expenses, which means that, should you be able to afford all the warm ale you want, your liver would be covered. And finally, imagine that although most of the other employees for the government are higher up in the hierarchy than you—and, consequently, draw higher wages—you and your family receive the same medical attention that they do since all government employees are covered by the same medical plan. In other words, although you are materially worse off than most others in your organization, your basics are covered and further, the medical attention you receive is no different from that which your superiors receive.
Is your health likely to be just as good as that of your superiors’?
The answer, it turns out, is “No.” You are likely to be in poorer physical and emotional health. In a set of studies that commenced in 1960s and continue to be conducted to this day, known as the Whitehall studies,19 researchers found that, despite receiving identical medical attention, those lower in status are more prone to falling sick, are sick for longer periods of time, have shorter life-spans, and suffer more emotional negativity than those higher in status. For example, even after controlling for lifestyle (e.g., amount of sleep) and habits (such as smoking), employees in the lowest grade had a mortality rate two times higher than that of men in the highest grade. The Whitehall studies have been replicated across multiple countries, including Finland and Australia.
Why are those higher in status more physically and emotionally healthy?
Clearly, it can't because they have a better chance of survival—since participants in these studies were not struggling to meet basic needs. Researchers have conducted a number of follow-up studies to find out exactly why status improves health and happiness, and their results reveal that status matters because of two main reasons. Self-esteem is one of them. Those higher in status enjoy better self-esteem and, as a result, are happier.20 The other reason is control—or autonomy. Those higher in status perceive to have greater autonomy and control over their own decisions and this makes them happier.21
2.4 Pursuit of superiority and materialism
Given everything I have discussed thus far, it would be tempting to arrive at the conclusion that, to maximize happiness, one should pursue superiority. However, as it turns out, although being superior makes on happy, the pursuit of superiority is likely to lower happiness levels. This is such an important point to note that I think it’s worth repeating: although being superior enhances happiness levels, it turns out that the pursuit of superiority lowers happiness levels. Or, put in more technical terms, controlling for one’s current status, the greater the need for superiority, the lower the happiness levels. What this means is that, regardless of whether you are superior or inferior to others, the more you strive for superiority, the less happy you will be.
To delve into why this contradiction occurs, allow me to share with you a short—and real-life—story.
I was recently on a cruise ship, soaking up the warm waters of a perfectly calibrated hot tub on the ship’s main deck, and drifting gradually off into la la land, when I was rudely awoken by the announcement that the “Hairy Chest Contest” was about to begin. Although I wasn’t interested in participating in this contest—being, er, somewhat deficient on a critical dimension—I could hardly pass up the opportunity to witness it. So, I shook off my stupor, slicked back the hair on my head (of which I continue to possess an adequate quantity), put on my shades, and got ready to observe the heroics of the hirsute. As it turned out, my time was well-spent. The South African grandpa (a co-finalist) gave the red-haired Irish milkman (another co-finalist) a run for his money. Although the latter “won”—based on an informal polling of the audience—it was by no means a cakewalk.
Later that evening, I had the good fortune of sitting next to the South African grandpa at one of the many bars on the ship. After stealing a quick glance at his chest to confirm his identity, I casually let him know that, as far as I was concerned, he was the winner of the contest. I didn’t expect much more than an acknowledgement of my support from him, but the loss to the Irish milkman had apparently cut him to the quick.
“THANK YOU!” he said, clasping my hand and shaking his head in disappointment. “Thank you SO much. I too thought I should have won. But what can you do? I guess the audience gets to decide who the winner is!” he said in contempt. Clearly, it had been a bad hair day for the Springbok.
“There, there,” I said in return, patting his well-padded back. I could empathize with the man’s pain, having often experienced the feeling that I had “won” something—such as a debate on whether the soul exists—only to realize, based on the reaction of onlookers, that my opponent had trounced me. The point of the story is that, even with something as seemingly easy to measure as the hairiness of the chest, it can be difficult to figure out who the winner is. This problem gets even hairier, so to speak, in contexts in which the yardsticks are even more ambiguous.
Consider the following examples:
Who’s the best drummer of all time?
My pick would likely be Stewart Copeland, but I could just as easily be persuaded to pick Neil Peart, who arguably has better “groove.” Other people—the more technically inclined—may prefer Steve Smith or Buddy Rich, while those who favor an expanded definition of drums may pick an exponent of the mridangam, djembe, or the steel drum.
Who is the best Cricketer ever?
Well, maybe this one is not such a good example since the answer is obvious, especially if you are Indian. (Most Indians, especially of my generation, are fanatical fans of a certain Sachin Tendulkar, and consider him to be the best cricketer ever.)
Who’s the best-ever marine engineer? The best-ever gardener? Businessman? Cook?
You get the point. The fact is, it is difficult—if not impossible—to come up with objective yardsticks for assessing one’s standing relative to others in almost any domain. Indeed, it is the dearth of such yardsticks that permit people to hold an overly exalted view of themselves in relation to others—a phenomenon known as the “better-than-average” effect.22 Almost everyone believes that they are better than the average person on positive traits such as, professionalism, warmth, and kindness when clearly, by definition, no more than half the people can be better than average and some people must therefore be deluding themselves.23
As an astute reader, I am sure you have noted that the dearth of objective yardsticks for assessing one’s standing relative to others poses a serious problem for those seeking superiority. If the metrics for assessing one’s superiority over others are subjective and ambiguous, how in the world is one to proceed?
Given this seemingly intractable problem, you would think that people would have long given up on chasing superiority. But the desire for superiority is apparently so strong that we don’t give up so easily. Instead of comparing ourselves to others on ambiguous—but relevant—yardsticks, we do the next best thing: we compare on yardsticks that are less ambiguous, even if these yardsticks are not relevant for assessing the original dimension of interest to us. I am talking here, of course, of extrinsic yardsticks—money, power, and fame. These yardsticks allow us to assess our standing relative to others even in areas that have little to do with money, power, or fame. Thus, for example, to gauge whether Bill Gates is a better leader than, say Steve Jobs, we use their relative net-worth as a proxy for leadership skills, the logic being that the richer person must be the better leader. Likewise, to assess whether Steward Copeland is a better drummer than Neil Peart, we look at the number of Facebook fans they have, or compare the prices that tickets to their concerts command.
The problem—or benefit, depending on your point of view—of using these proxy yardsticks is that they allow comparisons across domains. For instance, I could, as a professor, judge my standing relative to someone who has nothing to do with the profession of professing. How? By assessing how much more (or less) wealthy, powerful, or famous he appears to be compared to me. I say appears to be because it is often difficult to know exactly how wealthy, powerful, or famous someone else is, which is why we use signals of wealth (e.g., the brand of car), power (e.g., position in the company), or fame (e.g., number of Twitter followers) as proxy measures for actual wealth, power, and fame.24
As it turns out, the proxy yardsticks of money, power and fame, while offering the benefit of being quantifiable, come saddled with a very heavy problem: it makes us focused on accumulating extrinsic—or materialistic—rewards and such a materialistic focus, it turns out, is one of the biggest happiness-killers.25
2.5 Why materialism lowers happiness
I can distinctly recall how elated I felt when I took up my position at the McCombs School of Business. Before joining McCombs, I was earning a paltry stipend of $18,000/year as a PhD student, and I was being offered six times that amount as an assistant professor. I literally couldn’t figure out what I would do with so much money. Even after budgeting liberal amounts for all conceivable expenses, my calculations told me that I would be worth a million dollars in a few short years. I called up my parents to convey the good news, and bought a bottle of bubbly to celebrate. But as you may have guessed, I rejoiced too soon. Despite receiving reasonably good raises in each of the 15 years that I have worked at McCombs, I am still short of achieving my target (so, contributions are welcome!).
The catch with earning more is that expenses, seemingly magically, catch up with the earnings. This is one reason why earning more doesn’t enhance happiness-levels.26 But there’s a related, and even more compelling, reason why more money doesn’t usually buy more happiness: the psychological boost that one derives from higher earnings wears off quickly, and one needs a new increase to experience the same psychological boost.27 The tendency to adapt to new levels of money—or, for that matter, any other metric of superiority, including power, fame, or beauty—is so prevalent that adaptation could be considered one of the most fundamental aspects of human nature. It is the tendency to adapt, for instance, that is responsible in part for the intriguing and well-known finding that a mere two years after the event, lottery winners are no happier than non-winners.28 The fact that we adapt to new levels of wealth, power, and fame—and other materialistic proxies for superiority—means that, if we were to tether our happiness to the need for superiority, we would need to become increasingly wealthy, powerful, and famous over the course of our life to maintain high levels of happiness. You don’t have to be a genius to know that this is very unlikely.
Adaptation, then, is a big reason why materialism diminishes happiness levels in the long run. A related reason is the unrealistically high expectations that people have of materialistic things to bring happiness; these high expectations, findings show, are a major reason for the discontent of materialistic people.29 Yet another reason why materialism lowers happiness is that it promotes self-centeredness and lowers compassion,30 making others less likely to cooperate with materialistic people, leading them to be less happy in the long-run. Perhaps as a result of lower compassion, materialistic people are more likely to compromise on things that actually bring joy and happiness—things like hanging out with friends and family or contributing to society—in favor of money, power and fame.31
Confirming these conclusions, a study in which researchers followed 12,000 college freshmen for a period of 19 years (from when they were 18, in 1976, to when they were 37, in 1995) showed that those for whom “making money” was the primary goal were far less happy with their lives two decades later.32 Other findings reveal that compared to non-materialistic people, materialistic people are more likely to suffer from mental disorders.33
Given the significance of being materialistic for happiness, you may be curious to assess your own levels of materialism, and to help you do so, I have included a materialism scale in the Appendix to this chapter.