Comparison is the Thief of Joy

On Saturday I had the pleasure of speaking at Red Smart Women’s Week. Having done my talk I took the opportunity to go along to a session on ‘feeling good about your use of social media’, hosted by Brigid Moss. Her guests were Katherine Ormerod and Lucy Sheridan who both have first-hand experience as social media influencers.

Lucy’s focus is comparison, an area that fascinates me from a professional standpoint. We all compare ourselves to others, but social media allows this to get out of hand. Lucy candidly spoke about her trials with “Jealousy and envy of other people” which stemmed from social media. From the outside what you see is a funny, humble, engaging and authentic lady, but we all know what goes on inside and what we see from outside are two entirely different things. She went through a period where she really struggled and says she has to keep herself in check with social media even today.

So, what is the psychological root of this envy we all feel – envy which is exacerbated by social media? Evolutionary psychologists explain that feelings such as envy enabled our ancient ancestors to evaluate status within a group. Having higher status meant access to better resources (e.g. food, sexual partners, social alliances, safety) and therefore better chances of survival. The negative emotions felt when comparing someone similar but who had ‘more’ was a motivation to readdress the balance. For example, if person ‘a’ had more food than person ‘b’, the envy felt by person ‘b’ would motivate them to find more food, meaning an equal chance of survival.

Then and now, this comparison is most significant amongst peers. Research carried out by neuroscientists Ramachandran and Jalal show that if we compare ourselves to someone such as our neighbour who happens to have more money than us and someone like Mark Zuckerberg whose net worth is $62 billion, most of us feel more envious of our neighbour. Why? Because our brain has evolved to think that there’s ‘no point in being envious of’ Zuckerberg. He’s off the scale either in ability or luck so no amount effort will result in us becoming the richest person in the world.But if our neighbour is more wealthy than us, someone who has a similar background, social status, opportunities etc., we feel envy to motivate us to have the same. The problem is that today the envy is not fuelling a life and death situation so becomes a far less helpful emotion.

This unhelpful emotion becomes even worse when we add in social media. Online everyone ‘seems’ closer to us than in reality they are so suddenly everyone becomes a peer. As a result we compare ourselves to and become envious of far more people which starts the negative downward spiral faced by comparison on social media. This is made worse because we’re often trying to close the gap on something unattainable a) because the person we are comparing ourselves to is not from a similar background to us (e.g. Hollywood star who grew up with film star parents in LA) b) because most images on social media do not display reality (i.e. a snapshot of perfection rather than the struggle, pain, failure and every day ugliness that goes on behind the scene). The more primitive areas of our brain don’t know that we’re striving for something that we cannot achieve or something that’s unrealistic, which greatly amplifies the negative emotions felt and in turn produces powerful feelings of inadequacy.

So what can you do when you feel envy:

  • Try to notice the envy – what or who you are envious of, observing the emotion rather than engaging with it (more on this technique in my book and books by Russ Harris). Being self-aware can help you to stop and put it down when it becomes too much rather than getting sucked in.
  • Try to limit your social media usage. Sounds obvious but it’s really important. To quote Arianne Huffington “Technology is amazing, but it needs to be put in its place, and we need to set boundaries so that we have time to connect with ourselves and to build deep connections with others.” Lucy and Katherine have more tips on this (websites below).
  • On that point – connect with others in real life. Make the effort to call a friend or to speak to someone in person and really concentrate on what they say. It will move you away from feelings of envy as well as bringing you back into the real world and evoking far more powerful and helpful emotions relating to the more advanced areas of the brain.


Read Lucy and Katherine’s websites for more on having a healthy relationship with social media.

Lucy’s website:

Katherine’s website:

Defining You which is currently 99p on Amazon UK. It’s also available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK. Elsewhere it’s available on, and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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Harris, R. (2011). The happiness trap. ReadHowYouWant. com.

Ramachandran, V. S., & Jalal, B. (2017). The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy and Jealousy. Frontiers in Psychology8, 1619.

Ekman P., Friesen W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 17 124–129

Ramachandran V. S. (1998). Why do gentlemen prefer blondes? Med. Hypotheses 48 19–20

Quote: Teddy Roosevelt





Why is Trump so Popular?

2016-06-27 14.29.08

Well maybe popular is not the right word, in a Reuters/IPSOS poll only 6% of people who were asked ‘What is your primary reason why you are supporting him?’ responded to the option ‘I like him personally’. But this makes the question ever more intriguing, why are people voting for him?

I gave a talk on neuroscience and leadership last week and it’s quite a useful backdrop to explain, at least in part, the Trump phenomena.


The Science

Neuroscience doesn’t provide all the answers (if only it did) but does unravel some of the ‘mysteries’ of the brain. The most striking thing we’ve learnt through recent advances is the similarities between our brains now and those of our ancestors 50,000 years ago. We’ve also been able to confirm the conscious versus the unconscious elements of decision-making – highlighted by the work of the brilliant Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman.

So if we travel back in time the reasons we respond to certain situations the way do become a little clearer. Being in a group was absolutely essential to our ancient ancestors survival. If you were out of the group, you died and so your genes died off (something to consider for all those who voted to leave the EU). Through evolution the brain mechanisms surrounding group membership became deeply embedded in our brain and are still there influencing our behaviour today.   This is mostly happening at an unconscious level and is amplified when we feel threatened, at which point up to 5 times the blood flow is diverted to our emotional over our rational brain. In the times of our ancient ancestors this aided survival; it was more important to escape a predator than to stand around thinking about it. Because these drivers are powerful yet unconscious they can very easily lead us astray in our day-to-day behaviour.


What’s This Got to do with Trump?

Even the most flexible and open-minded people amongst us are wary of people who are different from us (unless of course we’re very aware and thinking with our more advanced/rational brain regions). Our more primitive brain is only concerned with keeping us safe and being suspicious of outsiders reduces the risk of walking into a hostile environment and being killed.

Trump fuels these fears by arguing that the USA should ‘Keep out Muslims’ and that a wall should be built between the USA and Mexico. Validation is therefore given to what began as a glimmer of uncertainty.

As such, Trump creates negative bias and builds more powerful prejudices which heighten the in-group, out-group divide and furthers the fear of outsiders. Then, and here comes the scary bit, Trump positions himself as the protector, someone who can do something about this troublesome enemy. The emotional brains of his supporters are now clinging on to every word he says. Here is the man who can fight the invading savages who will come and steal their food, take their children and kill them, or so the ancient part of their brain merrily thinks. On top of this, painting a picture of threat over various ‘out groups’ rallies people in the ‘in group’ behind the leader who say they will protect them. It triggers another primitive mechanism in the brain literally designed for survival: ‘If we stick together against the enemy we will be OK’. You can see how this creates a perverse circle of emotional support for Trump.

Meanwhile the rest of the world (and a large number of Americans) are looking on in astonishment. We are not feeling threatened by the same factors, therefore can see clearly and are more scared that Trump will actually become president.


Similar Brain Mechanisms and Brexit?

Is this what happened with Brexit? A slight majority of the population, without clear facts and information to help decision making had to go with their gut. The ‘gut’, in fact being the part of the brain, evolved to keep us safe in an ancient world. This part of the brain feared above all else a potential threat: Invasion from immigrants. A phenomenon described by Kahnemann as heuristics of the brain, is the type of decision that is then post rationalized without us even realizing that’s what’s happening. A decision made unconsciously and irrationally is not generally accepted because other people want to know our reasons why. So, we post rationalize the decision, believing it’s based on knowledge and expertise that hasn’t necessarily been considered or doesn’t necessarily exist. The decision-making is, in effect, faulty. Only time will tell if the decision-making of the majority of Brits was faulty. The rest I leave with you to decide.


Related Links:


Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman