Marie is doing Alice's hair when along comes Tanya, a mutual acquaintance. Tanya has the perfect life: great body, well-behaved children, primo social status. Watching her walk by, Alice admires her beauty, then relaxes into the pleasant sensation of Marie's hands arranging her hair. Marie, by contrast, nearly explodes with jealousy and competitiveness. Her teeth and stomach clench as she watches Tanya flaunt her long limbs, thick hair, and—most enviable of all—her hugely swollen, rose-red rump.
Tanya, Marie, and Alice are baboons, social primates who share around 95 percent of our DNA and a lot of our psychological traits. Scientists have found that some baboons (like Marie) are extremely competitive, others (like Alice) more mellow, less worried about measuring up. The more rank-conscious baboons suffer higher blood pressure—a stress-related condition we associate with driven, competitive humans.
No wonder some Asian philosophies refer to rank-obsessed human thinking as "monkey mind" and "comparing mind"—what I call "crazy mind." Constantly measuring ourselves against others sours and shortens our lives, robbing us of the very things we think it will bring: prosperity, love, inner peace, the knowledge that we're good enough. We have advantages baboons do not, though. We can notice when we've stumbled into monkey mind, and we can think our way out.
Why "Comparing Mind" Is Insane
Comparing and contrasting is a valuable human skill—and not just during high school English exams. Our ability to rank-order things is invaluable in making choices and setting priorities. But problems arise when comparing mind is the only mode of perception we access. Every gathering, conversation, or friendship becomes a stressful contest: Will I "win" in this situation, or will someone else turn out to be prettier, smarter, richer, thinner...in a word, better?
This way of thinking is absurd, because outside the realm of human perception, the concept of better is meaningless. Here's a challenge for you: Go outside and find the best possible stick. Why aren't you going? Perhaps because the request is ridiculous. What do I mean by "the best possible stick"? For doing what? Digging? Toasting marshmallows? Poking a weasel? A stick that's ideal for one purpose might be useless for another.
This makes comparing mind a setup for failure. Even if you can be the world's best at one thing, you'll be the world's worst at something else. Supermodels make pathetic sumo wrestlers. A brilliant orator who speaks only one language sounds like a babbling fool in another. If you spent your life mastering all languages, you might still suck at engineering, croquet, watercolor, etc. Since comparing mind hates being less than best at anything, you lose. Always. The relentless search for victory, security, love, and self-esteem invariably ends in failure, insecurity, enmity, and self-hatred.
Slowly Going Bananas
It's easy to say "I should stop comparing myself to others." Following through? Ah, there's the rub. Research on animals such as baboons (and rats and apes and, for that matter, chickens) suggests that competitive urges run thick in our blood. But even if your personal genes are on the noncompetitive side, pretty much every human society will supply a big ol' dose of crazy.
In Japan, for example, overtly lobbying for attention is discouraged ("The nail that sticks up gets pounded down," a proverb admonishes). But Japanese culture is so rank conscious that until you're sure how high a person's social status is relative to yours, you don't even know which verbs to use in speaking to him or her. Western democracies exalt the ideal of social equality, but our economic system arguably emerged from 16th-century Calvinism, a religion whose members believed that God showed favor by bestowing wealth and other forms of success on what they called the chosen. Naturally, these folks (and we, their successors) tried desperately to prove innate worth by achieving more lavishly than the Joneses in every possible way.
It seems that no matter where you are on the planet, the competitive madness was bred into your cells and reinforced in countless social interactions. But you can learn to watch for monkey mind to appear, to notice when it starts tainting your life. Like a virus, it generally sneaks up on you unseen; what you'll observe are its symptoms. Here are some telltale diagnostics:
- You get irritable or depressed when someone else succeeds.
- You don't feel loved or loving.
- Meeting a successful person, you feel anxious rather than honored.
- It seems to you that a victorious end justifies morally dubious means.
- You actively hope for others to do badly or to fail.
- 6. You don't know what you like until you know what others think.
- You're dogged by shame; you never feel good enough.
- Winning creates a brief happy moment, which quickly gives way to anxiety.
- Losing devastates you to the point of despair.
- You criticize everyone and believe everyone is criticizing you.