Happy Thanksgiving! I love taking a glimpse into other people’s lives. As an American, I am aware that my life is very different from most people who live on this earth. But I never realize how different until just recently. While many of us are striving to be in the “top 1%,” we lose sight of the fact that we’re already among the wealthiest people in this world. Here’s a little Social Comparison to help keep things in perspective to how the other half live.
Social comparison is when we determine our own self-worth based on how we measure ourselves against others we perceive as faring either better or worse.
Whether its upward (comparing yourself to someone better off) or downward (comparing yourself to someone worse off), we tend to compare ourselves to others all the time.
Upward comparisons can make us feel envious or motivate us to improve ourselves.
Downward comparisons can make us feel superior (like the 9 year-old who lectured me on why his iPod was better than my Android). But downward comparisons can also help us to keep things in perspective, and be grateful for what we have.
In our society, we compare ourselves on:
Cars: Chevy vs. Tesla
Education: Public school vs. Private school
Food: Eating at home vs. Going out for dinner
Technology: Android vs. Apple
House size: Modest home vs. Mansion
Luxury goods: Generic vs. Brand name
We tend to define ourselves by comparing our situation to that of others.
Social Comparison Example
A middle-aged (but still good-looking) couple has three young (equally good-looking) children. They live in a middle-class neighborhood. They have never hired a maid, pool boy, lawn care service, or handyman.
The wife drives a 14-year old sedan with both a side view mirror and door handle missing. The husband drives a 12-year old small, white pick-up truck with manual crank down windows and manual door locks.
Wife wears clothes that are 10-15 years old. She cannot remember the last time she purchased an item of clothing for herself. She works in a bad part of town, so she wouldn’t want to wear designer clothes anyway. The bag she carries into work was a freebie with the logo of a non-profit organization. She hasn’t had a haircut in a year and she paints her own nails.
The husband has a high school education and has not worked for almost 10 years. He, like his wife, wears his clothes and shoes until they literally fall apart.
They buy their food at Wal-Mart and stick to their shopping list. If what they’ve put in our cart is more than they budgeted, something goes back on the shelf. They grow what vegetables and herbs they can in their small yard.
They almost never eat at a restaurant that has wait staff (unless it’s someone’s birthday, and even then they use gift cards). They’ve not had food delivered to them in over 10 years.
The only vacation they’ve taken in their 20 years together was their honeymoon, during which they stayed 4 days at a hotel in the same state.
Their children attend public school. The kids have never gotten toys or treats during a trip to the store. For Christmas, they get four gifts plus stocking stuffers. For their birthdays, they each receive one gift, a cake, their choice of meal, and either a party with friends or an activity with the family.
How do you compare to this family?
Do you think you earn more or less money than they do?
Would you consider them to be “poor,” middle-class, or upper class?
What do you imagine their net worth to be?
More about this family
By American standards, this family lives a simple life.
But there are many things they do have. They live in a beautiful home large enough for each child to have his/her own room, an in-ground heated pool and a hot tub. They have two vehicles (and no car payments).
They have plenty of food to eat (though they try to not waste a bite). The wife earned a doctorate and has a well-paying job with reasonable hours. They can afford for the husband not to work so that he can stay home to raise the children. The kids have everything they need, and they are appreciative when they receive something a want.
(If you didn’t already guess, that family is mine.)
How the Rest of the World Lives
When we make comparisons based on people who are so similar to ourselves, we lose sight of how fortunate we all are. Among those of us with similar incomes, we have sturdy houses, electricity, potable water, easily accessible food, education, clothing, transportation, and choice of jobs.
Dollar Street really opened my eyes. This study imagined that there is one street on which all 7 billion people in this world reside. The poorest people in the world live on one end of the street and the richest on the other end.
When college students in Sweden were asked where they would live on the street, where did they put themselves? That’s right, they put themselves in the middle of world income. In reality, they were at the top.
For the Dollar Street study, photographers were went to 264 homes in 50 countries to show how people with different levels of income live. In each home, they took pictures of the same things (e.g., front doors, beds, stoves, toys, shoes, and even toilets). Pictures were then lined up by income.
I had no idea how many people don’t own shoes, toothbrushes, spoons, or sofas. There are people throughout the world who live without indoor stoves or toilets. Some children sleep on the floor under leaking roofs and do not have toys.
There are people who live so simply that they do not produce waste – they can’t afford not to use every resource at their disposal.
Some say I live a simple life. Someone once referred to me as “poor.” Dollar Street data supports my belief I live a rather fancy life.
I highly recommend watching the Dollar Street TED Talk on how the rest of the world lives, organized by income. It’s fewer than 12 minutes and the best TED talk I’ve every seen.
Actions Speak Louder than Words
Many of the decisions I make go beyond financial reasons. There are environmental and societal costs as well. I choose not to replace things because they’re no longer pretty or a newer version is available.
There is estimated to be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050, and China stopped taking our recycling waste. I feel I have an obligation to reduce how much I pollute our planet or waste it’s precious resources. I also have a duty to teach my children gratitude for what we have.
By my standards, I am one of the most fortunate people on this earth. With my basic needs met, I am thankful to be able to make financial choices that are not only consistent with my goals, but also consistent with my values.
What you thankful for?