Spirit of Competition – Comparison and Mental Health Part I

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We live in a culture that constantly provokes Competition. Our education system is modelled on competition through ranking systems. Our advertisements cash on our need to compete and better ourselves than others, whether in our assets, enjoyments or personal attributes. Our financial system works on bulls versus bears of stock markets. So, does our world thrive healthy on Competition? Not quite. I believe our world turns upon itself in the name of competition. But what about healthy competition? I prefer calling that an oxymoron. For what is competition? It is intrinsically “I need to prove I am better than X, Y, Z..” that’s fundamentally based on Comparison.

Is Competition Natural?

Freudian view which is inclined to believe all human beings are born with the instinct of battling for attention and fulfilment of various bio-organic drives, almost reduces humans to be at the mercy of self-fulfilment needs and innate instinct of Competition. Even Charles Darwin’s seminal work on Natural Selection in ‘The Origin of Species‘ is often explained as a theory of ‘survival of the fittest’ (BTW, Darwin himself Never used that phrase!), further claiming ‘competitiveness’ as a natural state of existence. But how did we conclude that ‘survival of the fittest’ is based on a strategy of Competition? Darwinian ‘evolution’ theorised that species best in adapting to and mastering their natural environment have the highest rate of survival. Now – ‘Adaptability’ is a self-focussed self-developmental concept and not of an externally focused comparison and competition with fellow specie-members. We need to adapt with regard to what facilitates our own development and growth, not what another has grown into. Darwin himself asserted the need for cooperation and ecological co-dependence for survival. More recent anthropological works too seem to prove so.

In an interesting research on certain plant community by professor Suzanne Simrad of University of British Colombia found that “.. In grasses and other non-woody plants, mycorrhizal fungi have been shown to transmit similar warnings that plants are being eaten by insects or attacked by pathogens, and to send food or essential nutrients to neighbors of the same or different species.. .. (..) .. the trimmed, stressed plants can send food to healthy neighbors. Mycorrhizae may even be used to transmit “piss off” signals by sending toxins to plants competing for resources nearby. (….) .. Paper birch send carbon to Douglas fir seedlings, especially when they were shaded in summer, probably enhancing their survival. In spring and fall, the Douglas-fir return the favor when the birch have no leaves.”* Seems the natural state of non-human species too are cooperation and co-dependence than competition!

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Genetics of Competition

Brain researchers like David Geary and his likes talk about evidence of increase in brain size with more competition. Yet world-renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead (author of Cooperation and Competition among Primitive Peoples) after studying several primitive societies that deem competition as a negative value, concluded that Competition isn’t so much in evolutionary genetics but a culturally created and perpetrated aspect of human psyche and behaviour.** Competition isn’t mandatory for survival but a result of how much value a specific culture ascertained to it.

So, why do we swear by Competition?

Because we have forgotten the art and science of independent self-evaluation. According to social psychologist Leon Festinger we humans feel driven to constantly validate our worth through comparing ourselves against others. He hypothesised that “There exists, in the human organism, a drive to evaluate his opinions and abilities”*** (and achieve so by comparing those to the abilities and opinions of others.) While Festinger might be correct about this intrinsic drive of self-evaluation yet it hardly makes the strategy of Comparison a productive, legitimate means. Rather there lies the root of self-negating and faulty self-evaluation.


Over-achievers, not just celebrity but amongst ordinary individuals, are recorded to be more anxious, depressed or wrung up than the so-called underachievers. Even then culturally the former is lauded and the latter tagged a loser. We must hence understand a few basics about ‘achievement’.

What defines achievement? That which is socially recognised? That which one can put a price tag to? That which is quantifiable by others and externally? If so, then there can never be any True achievement. Precisely because all these bases are forever in flux. What or who is socially recognised today might be socially an outcast tomorrow as the said society shifts its cultural or political values with time. Once in Germany, Adolf Hitler was hailed a hero. Today transculturally he is one name denounced to death. Price tags too keep changing depending on consumer culture that’s forever shifting. In the last few decades the price tag attached to a writer or teacher has gone down while quite paradoxically on one hand price of workaholic corporate go-getters have gone up and so has of mental health experts. ‘Externally quantifiable’ is based on a flawed, in-flux value judgment that’s a never-ending chase. And yet all this is triggered and fuelled in the name of ‘healthy competition’.

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Why Comparison is Flawed

Comparison is a vicious mental trap, no matter how well packaged it is. Each individual, when born, is unique in psyche, brain, talents and motivations. Hence it is CRUCIAL to realise that to evaluate one by comparing them through a generalised social/educational (and later, professional) set up is nothing short of convoluted and detrimental. Why compare a child innately brilliant in painting to his classmate naturally gifted in Math? And yet, children are driven by education systems to compare and compete for ranks. Employees are inspired to compete with colleagues in the name of appraisals. Siblings compared, unfortunately often by parents themselves, are indirectly provoked to compete amongst themselves to prove a ‘worthier’ child. In certain cultures, one’s neighbour’s children, assets and affiliations act as comparison scales to ascend. Homemakers compare themselves with other homemakers to be the best kitchen Queen. Artists, writers, poets, creative people compete to be the Best in their industry. Social site addicts compete for more ‘likes’. Teens compete for ‘more’ coolness quotient. Corporates compare and compete in every unhealthy way to mint more money. Obviously, both personal and social consequences are disastrous. Young students committing suicide. Young women suffering low-esteem and chronic depression. Young men and old, feeling forever frustrated, stressed out, manifesting unnecessary health complications. Yet, from kindergarten to stock market, this culture constantly goads us to “Compare and Compete”. But a Vital Question remains unasked – Better than Who?? Whatever for??

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How to Disarm  Competitiveness?

The key lies in shifting our self-evaluation from outward to inward – from external parameters of our value, skills and achievements to our own Self. For that, foremost requirement is self-love and a clearer understanding of self-worth – that each of us are Unique individuals with not half a carbon copy elsewhere. To compare then is absolutely baseless. Why not forget competing with whosoever and just try to become better than you were yesterday? It is still extremely growth-oriented but no more externally focused or based on comparison.

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Try learning something better than you learnt yesterday. Try bettering your own last PP presentation at work. Try making a better dish than your own from last week. If you have to compare, compare with the person you yourself were yesterday. Try bettering against that internal scale than anyone outside. This not only opens up avenues to indulge in our uniqueness but also frees the Mind from traps of constant comparison, envy, frustration, stress, depression and other physical and mental health complications.

Take Care, dear Mind

© & Author : Nivedita Dey, 2016
Image© : Source websites


** https://archive.org/details/cooperationandco033408mbp

*** Festinger, Leon, “Theory of Social Comparison Process,”, 1954


2 thoughts on “Spirit of Competition – Comparison and Mental Health Part I

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