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How Do We Know What Makes Us Happy?

Our desires are shaped by watching others more than we think.

We want what others have. You hate to admit it, but when you see others take pleasure in something, you want it too. Not everything. Not material things, necessarily. But something you are pained to miss out on as others appear to enjoy it.

You can control this impulse when you understand its origin. Maybe you’d rather deny the impulse instead, but that will leave you powerless over those painful feelings.

The primal roots of social comparison are simple. A baby monkey relies on social comparison to learn to feed itself. It will starve to death unless it learns to find its own food before mother’s milk is gone. The little monkey doesn’t understand its nutritional needs. It just sees others focus intently on putting stuff in their mouths with great eagerness, so it imitates. Once the food is eaten, dopamine is released, which wires the young brain to seek more rewards in the same way. But the urge to have what others have gets things started.

Mirror neurons do the job

Research shows that the brain doesn’t mirror everything it sees. Mirror neurons are activated when a primate sees another individual get a reward or risk pain. The primate brain evolved to meet its needs and avoid harm by observing the way others meet their needs and avoid harm.

Social comparison in history

Captain Cook saved lives with his insight into social comparison. He wanted to prevent scurvy among his sailors by feeding them the only available source of Vitamin C, sauerkraut. They were not interested in the stuff, so he put platters of it on the officers’ table, and permitted the sailors to help themselves from those patters. Soon, everyone wanted it, and Cook’s voyages were the first to wipe out the horrible disease of Vitamin C deficiency.

Social comparison in your life

When you offer cupcakes to children, it’s common to see them frustrated to miss out on the cupcake that another child chose. That cupcake seems more valuable once another child has chosen it. When I was a mom, I tried to avoid such tussles by making all the cupcakes look the same. Now I realized that I should have been teaching kids to manage this impulse in the long-run instead of just buying peace in the short-run.

Mate-choice copying in the animal world

Animals are more interested in mating partners that are seen with others. This fact feels so obvious, and yet so disappointing. We want to believe that the state of nature is pure and altruistic, and our society is to blame for the frustrations of social comparison. Alas, we have inherited a brain that learns from others. We can manage our brain better when we accept it. When you deny your true impulses, you can fill your verbal brain with fancy theories, but you still end up frustrated. Your verbal brain is skilled at blaming others for your frustration, but the bad feelings linger. Here’s a better way.

Thinking the unthinkable

Social comparison can lead you astray. Some examples are obvious, such as those of materialism and of adolescence. But subtler examples exist. For instance, in Captain Cook’s day, a sick person would be bled by a doctor if they had the money for the treatment. Today, we want treatments to be available to everyone without regard to money. So many people are getting unnecessary and even harmful treatments because they want “access” to what others have.

You have a choice

You can steer yourself away from social comparison when you recognize its power over your inner mammal. I have written extensively on how to do this in my book, I, Mammal: How to Make Peace with the Animal Urge for Social Power. Check it out at


It’s hard to accept this fact of life. Indeed, it has become taboo to accept it. We are told that the state of nature is all love and altruism, and “our society” is the root of all frustration. This leads to the belief that fighting “our society” is the path to mental health.

What would happen if you acknowledge the power of the demonstration effect in your own life? Then you would have the power to monitor the frustrations you are causing in your own mind and choose a new thought to replace the painful thought loop.

The facts about social comparison are widely overlooked because they’re uncomfortable. It exposes the central role of self-interest in our functioning. Self-interest has been condemned, and we are taught to invalidate core facts about our operating system. I am not saying self-interest is good. I’m saying self-interest IS, and those who deny it are promoting their self-interest by doing so.

You can have more sauerkraut and less bleeding if you learn to monitor the halos you produce in your brain’s endless quest for serotonin. This is how critters learned to meet their needs before the invention of language and curriculum development experts. They do it without formal instruction and without the decades of “help” that human babies get. They do it because they want what they see others getting.

LORETTA BREUNING, PhD, is Founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which offers resources that help people rewire their mammalian brain chemistry to live happier, healthier lives. As Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay, her work has been featured in Forbes, Time, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today, Men’s Health, The Dr. Oz Show, and many more nationally-recognized outlets.

Dr. Breuning’s other books include Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels and The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thought Patterns by Changing Your Brain Chemistry. She is a graduate of Cornell and Tufts Universities.

Before teaching, Dr. Breuning was a United Nations Volunteer in Africa. Later, she volunteered as a Docent at the Oakland Zoo.

For more information on Dr. Breuning visit and connect with her on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.

Tame Your Anxiety is currently available on Amazon.


By Loretta Breuning, PhD | Spring 2019

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