Death by Comparison

Brian Cochran

Most of us are familiar with the negative impact stress has on our health. We are also familiar with the common causes of stress: troubled relationships, busy schedules, demanding work environments, etc. New research shows an additional cause of stress related to money: relative socioeconomic status.

Socioeconomic status can be measured two ways. We can look at someone’s income or net worth and classify them based on an objective measure of wealth. It makes sense that someone who has objectively low socioeconomic status might have poor health. People with low incomes who can’t access or afford healthcare are more likely to have deficiencies in their wellness. However, access to care does not tell the whole story. Even countries with universal healthcare have disparities between lifespans of people with different income levels.

Studies have found equally predictive qualities in the subjective measures of wealth. Rather than looking at your actual wealth, subjective measures reflect how your wealth compares to those around you. "It's not being poor, it's feeling poor," as described by Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a leading researcher on the topic of stress and its impact on our health. Being surrounded by inequality and reminders of our neighbors’ wealth causes steady, damaging levels of stress.

Subjective wealth has never been a greater problem. We are, in a sense, all neighbors in the age of digital connection. The wealth of others is on constant display and easy to see. Our obsession with the rich and famous combined with the constant influence of social media is a detrimental combination. We are bombarded by images that trick us into thinking everyone else is wealthier, happier and all-around better off than we are. As a result, we quickly forget two key truths:

  1. Social media only presents the best of someone's life. Rarely do people post the negative truths.
  2. Just because someone else has more doesn’t mean we don't have enough.

Our culture suggests that more wealth and higher socioeconomic status will result in a more fulfilling life. This is not true, at the personal nor national level. As Dr. Sapolsky notes, "Once you get past the subsistence level, there's not a great relationship between the wealth of a country…and levels of happiness or life expectancy. The US has a shorter life expectancy than Cuba, Lebanon or Costa Rica." Rather than enhance our lives, our desire for more in order to keep up with the Joneses is literally killing us. We cannot enjoy the full benefit of our wealth, no matter what the amount, until we experience contentment.

None of this should come as a surprise. Our oldest recipe on how to thrive, the 10 Commandments, ends with a warning about focusing on what others have:

"You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor."
            —Exodus 20:17

Wanting your neighbors’ stuff was on the same list as murder, adultery and stealing! We are never at our best when we want what others have. Comparison is harmful to your mental health, your lifespan and your balance sheet. Avoid it at all costs.

Listen to Dr. Sapolsky’s full podcast on stress with Dr. Peter Attia here.


The foregoing information has been obtained from sources considered to be reliable, but we do not guarantee that it is accurate or complete, it is not a statement of all available data necessary for making an investment decision, and it does not constitute a recommendation. Any opinions are those of Brian Cochran and not necessarily those of Raymond James.

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