Comparatively Distressed


I am reading just the most fascinating book at the moment: Oliver James’s Britain On The Couch. Treating a Low-Serotonin Society, subtitled ‘Why we’re unhappier than we were in the 1950s – despite being richer.’ In a nutshell that’s James’ premise: we are all comparatively more affluent than we ever were, with the lowest rates of poverty and unemployment in decades, and living through a period of peace and prosperity (in most of the Western world, in any case). And yet the general level of dissatisfaction amongst the populace is steadily rising, and the number of reported cases of depression grows too. Whatever can the matter be?


James’s first bombshell is that despite the politician’s using it as the bedrock of just about any election campaign, increased overall wealth does not, statistically, make anyone feel any better. Once a country has made the leap into developed status, able in other words, to meet with some security the basic needs of its citizens, any rise in standard of living after that offers no real discernable ‘feel good’ factor. In fact, once we’re not afraid of malnutrition, poverty or murderous external foes, our sense of what we are entitled to, and our expectations for material possession and social achievement start to rise disproportionately. We are unrealistic in our targets, once we’ve moved beyond survival. And then the current climate has a great deal to do with our increasing angst. One of the biggest influences on our expectations has been the mass-market media, which is a major culprit in selling us the illusion of a kind of life we will never experience. Advertising, the so-called ‘celebrity’ obsession, even television drama, persuades us we should all be more beautiful, intelligent, comfortable, stylish, well-fed and satisfied than we are ever likely to be. If any one factor has made us ridiculously aspirational, it’s probably the media and its dangerous, seductive glossy images.


But not far behind it, doing an equally impressive job in making us feel perpetually insufficient is education, which has become competitive and pressurised to an entirely unreasonable degree. From the earliest ages children are given conditional love – conditional on them performing well in their school exams, so that they can get a good job, and live in a nice house like they do in the adverts, etc, etc. The result is that lots of self-critical, slightly insecure children work their way through education only to enter into a now highly competitive job market, in which firms are more often organised as hierarchical meritocracies, rather than old-fashioned communities. You’ve got to get on, you’ve got to be seen to be doing well, that’s the kind of mantra we all have pounding away as an accompaniment to our heartbeats. Is it any wonder we’re fed up?


All of this leads to what James’ rather wittily entitles, a ‘death by a thousand social comparisons.’ Western society has become unable to meet the basic archetypal needs of its citizens, and it’s done this rather paradoxically, by holding out even greater rewards to us. Those basic needs are: a) the need for status, which refers to our desire for rank, recognition, material goods, land, and law and order, and b) the need for emotional attachments, the giving and receiving of dependable care, the desire for emotional and physical contact, and altruism. What happens, then, when these needs aren’t met? James quotes a 1990 study that suggests: ‘Along one path we find persons whose intense need to be loved, highly esteemed and prized by others leaves them precariously sensitive to real or perceived slights, abandonments or withheld esteem by significant people in their lives… the second path is marked by excessive personal demands for accomplishment and control accompanied by relentless self-criticism, guilt and sensed inferiority when one fails to satisfy personal standards.’ Well, I certainly know people like this, one of whom, on bad days, might be me. I know reading books of psychology extends the same identificatory dangers as reading the medical dictionary, but I also see this kind of responsive behaviour in just about every student I’ve taught for the past 10 years. I would certainly agree that there is a strong collective trend towards this kind of quotidian unhappiness.


How does this come about in everyday life? Well, in order to maintain self-esteem we are continually comparing ourselves to others. In order to remain perky, however, we may have to juggle a bit creatively with the facts. So, on one of the many days when I tear my hair and wail ‘But I’ll never write with the same verve and panache as Bikeprof!’ or ‘But I’ll never write with the same gentle, silky warmth of Bloglily!’ I can use discounts to make myself feel better, remembering that Bikeprof is older and more experienced than me (by about a whole year, I think, and I’ll bet that was a particularly long year, too), or I can move the goalposts about and consider that since I only have one child, whilst Bloglily has three, I don’t require the same majestic levels of tolerance and patience and wisdom that she does. Or I can go the whole hog and look up a few techno-geek sites and feel better about myself by comparison. Effectively, James says that the basic requirement of firm mental health is that we live in a world of comforting illusions. With a tweak here and a nip there, we can keep our self-esteem bowling along on the sunny side of the street. However, some people suffer from maladaptive social comparison, which means they have a disastrous tendency to work these kind of comparisons the other way round, discounting reasons why people might praise or enjoy what they do, and yet recognising all the reasons why others might not be performing so well. This frame of mind can snowball, leading the individual to be excessively upset by negative feedback, inclined to generalise widely from a single unfavourable comparison, and more prone to self-doubt because of all that unhappy, comparative introspection. It doesn’t take all that much to tip a potentially happy illusionist into a ‘depressive realist’ who has suddenly become uncertain about who they are, what group they belong to, and what is expected of them. And our high pressure, high aspiration, highly critical society has plenty of influence to exert on the least crack in our mental façade.


I’m no good at fostering cheery illusions; never have been, never will be, but I do have one general truth that I occasionally remember to fall back on in times of uncertainty. A brief anecdote illustrates my point. When I was just about to return as a graduate student, I knew a young woman with severe bulimia and depression who was also returning to graduate study too. For a brief while we shared a house along with some other people. I remember once moaning that my prose would never reach the level of the book I was reading, and she laughed kindly at me and reminded me that the book was written by Susan Sontag, one of the great American academics and a highly experienced writer in her 50s. At the time I remember thinking, blimey, that’s a sane point. However, four or five years later, when I was married, and my son was a young child, and I was working at the university, a mutual acquaintance told me that this young woman (who was never in good mental health) was telling all and sundry that I had the perfect life, and that by rights it ought to be hers. Now I have to admit to feeling a little edgy, and worrying that, one day, I might arrive home to find her there with her handy, handbag-sized hatchet, waiting for me. But equally I had to laugh (in a gallows humour kind of way) as I was suffering very badly from chronic fatigue at that time, and could not be described as enjoying anything very much.


Now my point is twofold. On the one hand, it’s always easier to see these things as they affect other people, rather than as they affect oneself. And so one route to sanity in social comparisons is to imagine how the situation might look on someone else. I might need to think how I would comfort Bloglily if she were having a ‘Why Am I Not Susan Sontag?’ kind of day (by pointing out that she makes much better jokes than Sontag, for starters). On the other hand, you should never, ever trust the outside image, because it is always far too simplistic, and hides a multitude of elements and issues that remain unguessable. Like I said, no reassuring illusions for me, but instead (on a good day) the recognition that people simply cannot be judged in any but the most quantifiable skills, because one never has complete access to anyone else’s experiences. That much I can manage to do for myself. Now we just need to change the whole organisation of society and we’ll be getting somewhere.



21 thoughts on “Comparatively Distressed

  1. Holy cow, just when I was starting to feel less depressed, you mention BlogLily and BikeProf and not me! I’m crushed!

    (I’ve been moaning how I’ll never be able to write in-depth and assuredly like Litlove! And I’ll piggyback on your comparisons to BL and BP.)

    Obviously, this author is on to something. Western civilization has so much in the way of security and material goods, yet is impoverished spiritually and emotionally. Oliver James is elucidating some of the reasons for the disconnect, for which I applaud him.

    I’ve been working on a theory (I am full of them, I’m afraid) about how mankind is in need of a next stage of enlightenment. The great leap humanity made during the Renaissance, when man began to rely on science and empirical evidence, needs to go further now: We need to somehow elevate our understanding of science and technology, especially in terms of ethics and morality. Where are the philosophers sitting on rocks and thinking of these things, dammit?

    Thanks, Litlove.

  2. LK, you know, I could have gone on with those comparisons, and I would have undoubtedly added ‘O why can’t I write as sassily as LK!’ 🙂 I cannot but agree that we are desperately in need of a further stage of enlightenment. And where are those philosophers? I worry that they’re extinct, from having sat around too much thinking, Why am I paid less than anyone else?

  3. This sounds like a really interesting book – or maybe it’s just your exceptionally good review, which I’d never be able to manage, (no, no don’t think like that). It reminds me of a quote I copied into my notebook and put a big asterisk next to and which I now inevitably can’t find, but it was something along the lines of discontent being caused by the fact that each one of us compares our *interior* selves (with all our knowledge of our messy lives) to the *exterior* selves that those around us present to the world. In effect it will always be an unfair comparison.

    Can the philosopher’s help? I’m not so sure they’d do anything other than help us debate the best way to describe our malaise though I think someome like A C Grayling has a sane head on his shoulders. I also see that academia is getting funding for the study of happiness (Nick Baylis at Cambridge for instance) comes to mind, but something about it seems so, I don’t know, so *decadent* when we still can’t feed the world’s population or give them clean water. Maybe guilt takes its toll on us as well.

    (Sorry to ramble on, but your post was very thought provoking)

  4. I sometimes like to turn it around from “why can’t I do that?” to “thank goodness so-and-so is already doing that because that means I don’t have to do it!” Being lazy has its good points. 😉

  5. What an incredibly thoughtful post! Earlier today I found myself thinking about how other people are writing about French philosophers and reading really hard novels and answering challenges left and right and me? Well, I’m writing about throwing away my couch. You’re lovely and kind to say what you’ve said and of course it should come as no surprise at all that I’ve been busy feeling like everyone else does everything so much better.

    So yes indeed comparisons are seldom helpful. What’s needed instead is the ability and encouragement to pursue the things you love — not the things other people have chosen for you to be good at. And if you find yourself part of an entire community of people who do encourage that — which is what you’ve created here — then you’re lucky indeed, which is precisely how I feel.

  6. Sandra – I think you hit the nail on the head when you point to an unfair comparison of internal and external lives. I think that’s it exactly. And it’s true that other nation’s clean water and vaccinations certainly deserve to be put ahead of our relative malaise in the list of significant concerns. But that being said, I like A C Grayling too, and I particularly like Adam Phillips, whose latest book ‘Going Sane’ I also found extremely interesting and persuasive. Sylvia – what a good thought! I will be borrowing that one! Bloglily – ah but nobody can write about throwing the couch away quite the way you do… Doing the things you love, regardless, is also an excellent way of gaining useful direction, and I agree wholeheartedly that we ought to try to keep that in our sights. Oh and thank you for telling me about 9rules. I was so convinced I’d filled the form in wrong (something else I’m not good at!) that I hadn’t even thought to check!

  7. “Depressive realist” and “suffering from maladaptive social comparison” describe me perfectly. As I’ve gotten older, it’s become the tiniest, tiniest bit easier to just appreciate the amazing things other people can do rather than get jealous about it. Or to feel that way in moments. I’ve felt the way you describe about blogging — I’ll never write like those other people do! But the good thing about blogging is that I’ve found so much good writing out there, I’ve decided if I keep comparing myself to others, I’ll go insane, so I have no choice but to appreciate others’ talents and be grateful I have access to them and leave it at that. Surrounding myself with really great people makes me stop struggling to be like they are because I see it’s pointless. And then I begin to enjoy myself.

  8. I think in this one instance, being born in 1934 was a good thing. Although I never went hungry, I was close to those who had and so I can still appreciate the simple fact of just having had a roast chicken dinner. And being able to go to college was a surprise, amazing good luck, not anything that was expected of me.

  9. Oh dear. Panache and verve? I’m not sure I can live up to that. Quite appropriately, my delicate and happy little illusions about myself got one of their necessary and periodic smacks today. One of the only ways that I can stay reasonably sane (sane enough to do my daily work, at any rate) is to remind myself frequently that we are all hiding behind certain veils of varying thicknesses and opacity. Sometimes the reminding even works, but not usually.

  10. Agreeing with Sandra about “Interiors” and “Exteriors” still leads me beyond the personal in your essay, Litlove. I wonder if the current willingness of young people (males in particular) to commit suicide by bombing others is a function of the study quoted by James; ‘Along one path we find persons whose intense need to be loved, highly esteemed and prized by others leaves them precariously sensitive to real or perceived slights, abandonments or withheld esteem by significant people in their lives… the second path is marked by excessive personal demands for accomplishment and control accompanied by relentless self-criticism, guilt and sensed inferiority when one fails to satisfy personal standards.’ In both situations I can see a “justification” for an easily led youth to try to satisfy the demands of a God, since he cannot satisfy the perceived demands of other human beings.

    Gee, you make me think.

  11. Who is it that said “comparisons are odious”? If I find myself tempted to play the comparison game as regards my writing, I remind myself of what makes my reading life so rich. It’s the variety, all those marvellously distinct voices, each with different pleasures to offer. So why would any of us wish to write like someone else rather than to make our own unique contributions? That’s not to say that I don’t worry about measuring up, but I worry about meeting my own potential not about how I stack up against the achievements of others. That can still involve beating myself up a bit, but then I wouldn’t be beating myself up for not meeting my potential if I didn’t feel confident that I have potential! It’s starting to sound like I’m quite adept at fostering cheery illusions… Maybe it’s the lawyer in me, able to spin any argument to my advantage!

  12. Dorothy – you’re absolutely right – it’s getting into that state of mind whereby everything is accepted and enjoyed on its own terms, and being in the middle of a large group is probably a very good way to go about that. Nancy Ruth – I think I ought to cut and paste your comment somewhere where I can see it every day! I’m not grateful enough for the simple things. Bikeprof – I’ve left a comment on your site, but I do think that your self-criticism here is entirely unwarrented. I think you may be comparing yourself upwards to an ideal of teaching that no one flesh and blood could possibly emulate. Archie – the suicide bomber issue is a complex one. I did discuss it once in a lecture on Jean Genet; at that time I was discussing how those who are oppressed and foreclosed access to power by conventional routes can sometimes become obsessed with the only route to power available – the ‘glory’ of inspiring fear in others. But I think there are many factors that go into it. Kate – you just sound very well adjusted to me!

  13. So, you mean next time you’ve delivered the 50-year-old-bottle-of-priceless-wine prose on something like a 21st-century conversation between Freud and Jung, and all I’ve got to offer is the can-of-Miller-Light description of a visit from a vacuum cleaner salesman, I ought to put away my razor blades?

    One of the best works of fiction I’ve read that deals with this very topic is Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. Last time I read it (about 15 years ago), I was just amazed by the psychology and what happened as one moved through the generations and watching the changes, from the man who could barely feed himself to his very wealthy and self-absorbed children and grandchildren who expected the world to be handed to them on a platter.

  14. Litlove you always have such thoughtful and thought provoking posts! Although I drop by regularly and read your posts, I don’t often comment as I feel a bit out of my league here (and after today’s read…I know why I feel this way). Suffice it to say that this is an excellent and most timely post. I think you really hit the nail on the head in terms of how our society functions. I may have to track this book down!

  15. Emily – your comment made me laugh so much – and proves that you really should win the title of Blog Queen of Metaphor. You know, I’ve never read anything by Pearl Buck despite having heard the name so often. I really should try one of her books, and the one you recommend sounds like an excellent place to start. Danielle – and yet you so often come up with such wonderful questions when you do comment! Do try the book – it’s just fascinating. I’m reading all about the Royal family at the moment – the Queen’s obsessessive compulsive disorder and Diana’s bulimia, and it’s all surprisingly gripping. I guess I don’t read enough scurrilous newspapers to get this sort of information elsewhere! Nils – it is entirely due to you that I applied to 9rules – I didn’t intend to until you emailed me! I haven’t received an email yet, but I will be relying on you (as ever!) to guide me through the new etiquette when I do. And thank you for your lovely enthusiasm – I don’t think it’s sunk in with me yet at all.

  16. Oooh once again our reading spookily overlaps!

    I am reading ‘Happiness: lessons from a new science’ by Richard Layard at the moment, mainly because I got plied with drink and lobster by a right-wing think tank who didn’t like what he said. In fact since I started my new job I have got well into my popular economics – though my enthusiasm is slightly dimmed that the alchemists of the numbery ‘science’ can make the same data mean TOTALLY different things (I read Freakonomics too).

    Anyway Layard is spot on about a lot of things. Not having a TV makes you happier because you’re not comparing yourself with people. Having a nice family and friends who love and praise you makes you happy. I suppose on some levels he is repeating the blindingly obvious, but then if it is so obvious, why don’t we live like that?

    I haven’t had a television since March and stopped reading fashion magazines and I cannot tell you how much difference it makes. OK, there are other factors too like my new job or cool housemates, but stopping comparing is a good way to start.

    Or, of course, just being so good at what you do that comparing youself makes you feel damn fine – as you should about your writing!

  17. You’re so right about the media setting up this impossibly glossy life that we just can’t aspire to having in its entirety. I used to be a bit of a magazine addict, but have been slowly weaning myself off them, and I find I am much happier – there are no more “must-have” boots, or “latest” restaurant to tempt me. Instead I find I am reading blogs instead of magazines, and the only aspiration I have is to write better and read more widely. Having you to read on a daily basis is a whole lot better for my soul than reading about cutting-edge winter coats or perfect meals served up in perfect homes.

  18. I was going to write a post about feeling guilty, but I think this post links in nicely. I’m always feeling guilty for not being more of a superwoman (juggling work, motherhood and everything else). I look at other people and think “They look like they’re handling things much better than I am” – but I’m sure they might be looking at me and thinking the same.

    The problem is that I am a “high need achiever”. Most of the time I have perspective, but sometimes it gets to me. On a bad day, I feel bad if I have not completed every single academic achievement to the best of my ability AND saved the world AND cooked the dinner AND changed the baby’s nappy – all at the same time. On a good day, however, I realise that I’m incredibly lucky and really I’m doing very well.

  19. Thought-provoking as always Litlove. 🙂 The bit that struck me most today was this:

    “In fact, once we’re not afraid of malnutrition, poverty or murderous external foes, our sense of what we are entitled to, and our expectations for material possession and social achievement start to rise disproportionately. We are unrealistic in our targets, once we’ve moved beyond survival.”

    You can say that again. I always thought that once I was earning money, and therefore eating properly, paying my rent on time and managing my debts relatively well, that I would be happy as can be. But now all I think about is how I can’t buy myself new clothes and shoes, or eat out at restaurants or drink good wine. I’m constantly comparing my new found comfortable-ness to other people’s affluence and yearning, always yearning, for more. 🙂

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