My life compared to others: Examining the impact of better or worse off comparisons on young adults’ beliefs about how their life satisfaction is unfolding over time
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Many individuals perceive their lives as becoming increasingly satisfying over time. Drawing on social comparison theory and research based on the better/worse-than-average effects, the present research investigated comparisons to the average other as a potential cause of how individuals evaluate their past, current, and anticipated future life satisfaction, as well as their affective reactions and motivation to achieve their future goals. In two studies, participants were randomly assigned to describe their current life (Study 1; N = 382; M age = 30.01 years; 43% female) or their life as unfolding over time (Study 2; N = 451; M age = 30.89; 54% female) in a manner that is either better (better-than-average) or worse (worse-than-average) than the average person their age and gender, or a third ‘no comparison’ group (control) that provided no description (Study 1) or a description without reference to others (Study 2). Dependent measures for both studies included ratings of recollected past, current, and anticipated future life satisfaction, positive and negative affect, and motivation for the future (commitment, confidence). In addition, self-esteem was assessed as an exploratory moderator. In both studies, participants in the better-than-average conditions (vs. the other two conditions) reported greater perceived improvement in life satisfaction over time (from the past to the future), as well as higher positive and lower negative affect. Participants in the worse-than-average conditions (vs. controls) reported less perceived improvement in life satisfaction over time, as well as lower positive and higher negative affect. Additionally, participants in the better (vs. worse) than average conditions reported greater (vs. lesser) commitment and confidence to achieve future goals. There was little evidence for the moderating role of self-esteem. Thus, present findings suggest that comparison involving individuals’ current lives or their progress in life relative to others influences how they view their lives as unfolding over time, as well as their affective reactions and motivation. Specifically, viewing one’s current life or one’s progress in life over time as better (vs. worse) than average results in more favourable life evaluations, affective responses, and motivation.