Serotonin And The Agony Of Social Comparison

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Private Lives of Primates, inner mammal news from Loretta Breuning

By Loretta Breuning

Fellow mammals,

brainYour brain is always comparing you to others, even if you’d rather not. Our brains evolved to make social comparisons because it promotes survival. In the state of nature, a mammal must accurately compare its strength to others in order to avoid harm and still do what it takes to meet its needs.

Comparing often leaves you feeling bad because your brain scans for signs that others are stronger. Fortunately, it feels good sometimes because you notice that you are stronger. This triggers serotonin, which creates a safe feeling. You may think it’s wrong to feel good about coming out on top, and you probably hate it when others do that. But our ancestors survived by seizing safe opportunities to prevail, and our brains are inherited from them.

Your brain scans for safe ways to trigger serotonin, but risk and uncertainty are inevitable. In the state of nature, you can easily get killed by putting yourself in the dominant position if you are in fact weaker. A monkey can get painfully bitten if it grabs a banana that a bigger monkey had its eye on. Today, we avoid violence most of the time, but we instinctively know the risk of annoying someone by seizing an opportunity they had their eye on.

You can protect yourself from pain by taking the one-down position all the time, but that feels awful. The cortisol is your brain’s way of reminding you that you have needs to meet despite the risks. Your only choice is to make accurate social comparisons, and you have a brain designed to do that.

So how can you enjoy more serotonin and less pain? Researchers have found that people who compare themselves “downward” are happier than people who compare themselves “upward.”

I don’t like this solution. It sounds dismal to make myself happy by focusing on the pain of others. I looked for an alternative.

I hit upon the idea of comparing myself to people of the past and the future. I imagine my ancestors whose lives were indeed awful. I imagine people in the future benefiting from the contributions I make today. This puts me in the one-up position and my serotonin flows. I get to enjoy social dominance without being a jerk in real life.

This may seem abstract, fake, and even stupid, but the alternatives are worse. You bounce between two bad choices: the frustration of putting yourself below and the risk of putting yourself above. It’s nice to have a cushion, even an artificial one.

“But we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others at all,” you may say. You may disdain others for indulging in this shameful thought habit and pride yourself on thinking only about equality and oneness. See! You just did it! You put yourself in the one-up position and it felt good. You did it in a instant and the good feeling wired your brain to do it again.

We have to live with the brains we’ve got. The more you understand your inner mammal, the better you can manage it. You can feel good by comparing yourself to ancestors who had less, and to people of the future who will value your present contributions.

That doesn’t feel as good as getting a big promotion and a round of applause for your latest creation and the attention of a special someone. It would be nicer to be high on serotonin all the time. But that’s not realistic, and if you expect that you will face constant threats to your expectations. You will see a world of threats. You will feel the sting of disappointment, a lot.

You have the brain power to try something different. It’s not easy being a serotonin-seeking mammal.

– Loretta Breuning, For more inner mammal books and resources, go to: