It’s said that when chased by a bear, you don’t need to outrun the bear; you just need to outrun your friend. Similarly, to win a championship, a promotion, or a date, you need only to beat the immediate competition, whether a team, a colleague, or a fellow suitor.
No wonder we constantly measure ourselves against our peers. In a survey of faculty, students, and staff at the Harvard School of Public Health, nearly half of the respondents said they’d prefer to live in a world where the average salary was $25,000 and they earned $50,000 than one where they earned $100,000 but the average was $200,000. Similarly, a majority favored relative over absolute advantage when it came to their own intelligence and attractiveness, their child’s intelligence and attractiveness, or praise from a superior. Apparently the survey respondents would rather the planet be filled with stupid, ugly children than have their own child left behind.
Our desire for relative advantages is not irrational: Such advantages may make us happier. In 1974, Richard Easterlin, an economist, found that although a country’s richer citizens are happier than its poorer ones, as countries become richer, their citizens do not become happier—a contradiction known as the Easterlin paradox. Happiness, Easterlin reasoned, must depend on one’s wealth relative to one’s compatriots: When everyone gets richer, no one gets happier. A study of 12,000 British citizens would seem to support Easterlin’s conclusion, revealing that increased income boosted life satisfaction only when income rose relative to peers of a similar age, educational level, or region.
Read the whole story: The Atlantic