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Why You're Not Thankful

I could tell you all the reasons why you should be thankful this Thanksgiving -- that you have a place to live and food to eat, that over half of the world's population lives on less than $2 a day, that 20 percent of the people on this planet don't have access to safe drinking water. I could even point out that you are literate (with impeccable reading taste I should note) and have an education. I could tell you all of these things and a thousand more for why you should be thankful, but it won't help. Why? We can thank "social comparison" for our lack of thankfulness.

Social comparison is what happens when you compare your abilities, successes, opinions, etc., to those of others. You can compare yourself to people who are more successful, or to people who are less successful. Social psychologists have identified two primary social comparison lenses through which we compare ourselves to others -- contrast and identification. When you contrast yourself with another, you focus on the differences and what you don't have in common. Conversely, when you identify with another, you focus on the similarities and the attributes that you share.

For example, if you look up to your super-successful neighbor and try to learn from him and find characteristics you both share, it can create admiration and hope. This can boost not only your self-image but also your skill-set. While this utopian neighborhood sounds like a great place to live, I'm guessing this kind of social comparison doesn't happen too often on your block.

More commonly, when we look at those who have more, seem happier and appear more successful, we immediately look at all the characteristics they have that we don't. For example, we'll say, "He's so much smarter than me," or, "She's more creative." When you routinely engage in this kind of social comparison, you are slowly eroding your self-image and creating frustration that can lead to resentment for what "they" seem to have but you lack.

We also compare ourselves to those with less, but instead of looking for differences, we look at all of the ways in which we are the same. The family living in the tent city isn't an aberration. "That could be me!" you decry. "What's separating me from that poor sap?" If you do this kind of comparison often enough, it can create unnecessary fear and anxiety that you're not worthy or that you don't have enough.

It's no wonder we feel so thankless. We perceive that we have nothing in common with those who are more successful and that we are just a day away from living like those below us on the social ladder. Can we simply resist making comparisons? No chance. Social comparison is a natural behavior that exists across many species and is evolutionarily and biologically very important. It's not going away, but there's a better way to compare.

The solution is to flip your normal way of thinking on its head. You can increase your self-esteem, and your appreciation for what you have, by identifying all of the ways in which you are similar to those who are more successful than you. Try it. Think of someone who seems to have it all. What characteristics do you share? Maybe you and your CEO have a knack for quickly bonding with people, or maybe the master salesperson in your office is reserved just like you.

And when you discover that you're comparing yourself to those with less (don't feel badly; we all do it), consciously try to think of all of the ways you are different and all of the characteristics you don't share. If your neighbor is going through a foreclosure, don't immediately jump to the conclusion that you are destined to follow in her footsteps. Maybe she was in debt because her expenses got out of control, which is something you are diligent to avoid.

When you compare yourself to others, you are creating a story. The story you write can be one that erodes your confidence and creates unnecessary fear and anxiety, or it can be one that boosts your self-efficacy, outlook and gratitude. The story you choose will help determine how happy you are this Thanksgiving and beyond...

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(Table image by Adam Baker, CC 2.0)
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