The Stress of Hyper-Success

Last week, I talked about the inflation of expectations. In that case, it was the vendors we deal with that were the victims of that inflation. But we don’t only have inflated expectations about others. Increasingly, we measure ourselves against our own expectations. And that is leading us down a dangerous path.

The problem is that success is a relative thing. We can only judge it by looking at others. This creates a problem, because increasingly, we’re looking at extreme outliers as our baseline for expectations.

Take social media, for instance. Women feel more stressed than satisfied after spending time on Pinterest, according to a recent survey. “Pinterest stress” is the official label for feelings of inadequacy in trying to measure up against the unrealistic examples of domestic perfection shared on the female-dominated social network.

But it’s not just women and Pinterest. One-third of Facebook users feel worse after visiting the site. Why? Because we feel envious after going through the pictures of someone else’s dream vacation. Social media invites comparison. We try to measure ourselves up to the achievements of others in our social circle. There are two problems with that: we are naturally jealous of our neighbors, and our neighbors tend to lie (or at least embellish) when they post of their own accomplishments.

Added to this is the unnatural effect of the Power Law curve. Not all online posts about accomplishments are equally popular. We tend to focus on those that are outstanding — those that are set apart from the average. These online examples, representing the extreme upper limits of success and achievement, take their place at the head of the Power Law curve, drawing a dramatically bigger audience. We ignore the commonplace, which lives somewhere in the Long Tail. Our own quest for the remarkable (humans never gossip about average, everyday topics) leads us to focus on the unrealistic.

So the more access we have to the achievements of others, the more skewed our idea of success becomes. What we don’t realize, however, is that we’re measuring ourselves against the very highest percentile of the human population.

Take salaries, for example. What would be a yearly amount that would make you happy? Economists Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahnemann asked that very question — and it turns out that $75,000 a year is the magic number. Below that number, the day-to-day stress of just getting by leads to chronic unhappiness. But above that number, people seem to feel more fulfilled and are generally in a more positive frame of mind. But after you get past that general threshold for happiness, more money doesn’t seem to always equate to increased happiness. Millionaires and billionaires are not that much happier than the rest of us.

Yet if I asked you how much you wanted to make, I suspect the number would be higher than $75,000. And I doubt that it would have much to do with happiness. It would be because we know of people making more than us — much more. We have no idea if those high wage earners are happy or not, but we do know they pull down a much bigger paycheck than we do. So we believe we should aspire to that standard, whether it’s realistic or not, in the mistaken belief that it will make us happier. It won’t, by the way. We humans are notoriously bad at forecasting our own happiness.

This is one of those strange Darwinian detours that evolution has saddled us with. In our original adaptive environment, doing better than our neighbors was a pretty sure bet for superior gene propagation. We’re hardwired to not just be envious but to strive to compete. That made sense when our target was the person we were competing against for food, shelter or sexual access.  It doesn’t make sense when our competition is a far removed, sometimes fictitious ideal propagated by the media and the viral force of social sharing.

Somewhere, a resetting of expectations is required before we self-destruct because of hyper competitiveness in trying to reach an unreachable goal. To end on a gratuitous pop culture quote, courtesy of Sheryl Crow: “It’s not having what you want, It’s wanting what you got.”

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