Emotional F(x), philosophy, Spirituality
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Psychology of Competition: Why you don’t Value what will make you Happy

Our Inconsistent Set of Values

As a society we say that “it’s what’s inside that counts.” However, the fact of our ultra-busy, career-chasing lives, and the billion-dollar beauty and med-spa industry reveals that we actually seem to think it’s the external things that give us value. Why is there this split between what we want to value, what we say we value, and what we actually seem to value? When theory is put into practice in the values we want for ourselves, why don’t we place inner beauty and a loving heart above an LV purse and a fit figure?

The inconsistency in values is sadly apparent in the gender wage gap.  Traditionally, professions staffed by sincere, caring, and dedicated women such as nursing and teaching pay less than professions that focus on production of a specific good or multiply money.

Now, I am in no way anti-capitalist (I’m rather a “status egalitarian”: human rights and esteem for all.  A discussion of its economic ramifications is for another day!).  But consider those things that truly gives us joy in life – self-love, confidence, partnership, friendship, family, art, music – are the things that we value the least. That is to say, we seem unwilling to trade money, time and effort for these.  As adults we’ll work OT to pay for a new iPhone but not for music lessons. We’ll make time for work, but sit in front of a TV instead of meeting a friend for a chat.

There must be a reason why our set of values is so inconsistent.  If we keep chasing one value, but deep inside actually want the opposite value, that’s bound to cause angst and not lead us to live the happy lives we want to live.


I want to briefly talk about the natural human inclination to compete. As a species, we survive and thrive because we outdo other competition when it comes to relationships, scarce goods, sex, etc.  Of course, not all competition feels good.  What makes some competition enjoyable and what makes other competition uncomfortable?

Measurable, quantifiable, comparable, discernible: Gold, silver, bronze… The Olympics are the pinnacle of human competitiveness, a time when we come together to try to prove that we are better than everyone else.  May the country with the best medical research win!  Excuse my cynicism.  But in the case where the outcomes are measurable, quantifiable, and and “the facts” are easily comparable and features can be pointed out, then competition feels good.

In short, when we can easily know where we stand in relation to other people, we gain a sense of security.

Vague, subjective, inexact, obscure: Art, kindness, tranquility, friendship… These goods are not quantifiable.  They depend on taste, style, and the observer’s state of mind.  Surely, they are goods and add value to our lives. But:

De gustibus est non disputandum. – a Latin phrase meaning there’s no disputing taste.  And that’s exactly it.  When it comes to matters that cannot easily be seen or measured, we don’t feel right about competing.  As any teenage girl knows, the competition of who is prettiest in her clique is a very scary competition because it’s impossible to know who wins.  With non quantifiable, inexact, and obscure goods, there’s always looming insecurity of not knowing where you stand.

You might point to the beauty industry and point out that we do involve ourselves in this kind of competition, but think about how companies prepare specific products – for the smoothest complexion, the shiniest hair, etc.  They don’t market products for “the mystique of a confident woman,” and “she’s just so jolie-laide, I can’t take my eyes off of her.”

The point of the discussion of competition was to show that we are innately motivated to compete for goods that are measurable, quantifiable, comparable, and discernible.  And, it’s scary and just so much effort to compete for things that are aesthetic or immeasurable.  As a society and as individuals, we chase what can be measured in order to satisfy a need for power, security and confidence.

So, we really do have the values of happiness, caring, a loving heart, and inner beauty.  But, since they aren’t easy to compete for, they get neglected in favor of quantifiable goods.  How do we as individuals refocus on the values that will actually increase our well-being and joy?

Everything has an Opportunity Cost

You know how they say, “The best things in life are free.”  Well, that’s a lie. Everything worthwhile requires an input of some kind.  Even love requires patience, time, and effort. Loving another person requires that each of those people – separately – must set aside time for reflection and personal growth.  The same is true for becoming a kind and patient person, or a person who loves herself and is confident.  The best things in life are not without cost.

When we spend all of our time and effort competing with other people for measurable goods, we are committing ourselves everyday to living out values that are inconsistent with the values that will make us truly happy.  The opportunity cost of having a Porsche and being CEO of a fortune 500 is that you probably do not have time to become a singer-songwriter or be a stay-at-home mom for your kids, or to take a three month vacation to spend time laughing with your loved one.

(I’m not saying it’s impossible to have those things simultaneously, but it’s not easy. The people in those positions who are also great people, and beautiful inside, work on it, too.)

Choose Your Values

Given that it is human nature to compete, I think that it’s easy to get addicted to competition.  It naturally makes us feel good and secure.  However, I encourage you to take a step back and consider what your life means to you, to reassess your values, and take stock of where you put your time and effort.  Why?

  • Living according to an inconsistent set of values is psychologically painful because you never get what you desire.
  • Living according to an inconsistent set of values will mean that your time and effort are diffused instead of focused.  Jack of all trades is master of none.

What you chase is what you become.  Who do you want to become? Choose to value within yourself what you truly think is important.

Critical Thinking Questions:

Below the questions are some groupings of virtues and values to help you out.  Consider some of them and what they mean to you.

  1. How is this value expressed in your life?
  2. Do you want it to be more or less apparent?
  3. Can you rank your values?
  4. Which values are core (can’t do without ’em), and which are auxiliary (merely “good additions”)?
  5. If you could give everyone a virtue, or teach them to value ONE thing, which one would it be?
  6. Is there an activity that can help you embody or strengthen your top value?
  7. Would it be worth it to you to pursue that activity?  Would you have to give something else up and what is the cost in money, time, and effort?
  8. Do the people around you value the same things as you?  Reflect on their actions to guess which values would come out on top for them?core valuessamurai virtuesvirtues project

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