(RxWiki News) If you've ever looked at someone else and either wished you were doing as well as that person, or been relieved that you weren't as bad off, you aren't alone.
A natural human tendency to compare ourselves to others helps us reduce uncertainty, particularly when it comes to health and illness.
Researchers have now shown that these comparisons can actually have an impact on both your physical and emotional health.
"Be aware of how you compare yourself to others and focus on the positive."
At Penn State, professor Josh Smyth led an analysis of more than 30 studies that focused on the relationship between our health and the way we compare ourselves socially. According to Smyth, people will chronic illnesses are particularly likely to compare themselves to others with the same illness.
His research team, composed of Penn State and Syracuse University researchers, found that people who compare "downward" to others worse off than themselves are less depressed than people who compare "upward" to those who are faring better.
Comparing downward is often associated with the immediate gratification of positive feelings such as gratitude and relief.
But the researchers also found that the opposite held true nearly as often. Some studies showed that people who compared upward did better on physical health measures, and reported feeling hopeful about their prospects for improving health.
Ultimately, studies demonstrated the negative effects of both types of comparisons: downward comparison can lead to worry or sadness and upward comparison can lead to dejection.
Danielle Arigo, a grad student from Syracuse on the research team, said this is exactly the type of information researchers need to know in order to help people benefit health-wise from social comparisons.
"Right now, we know that it can go either way," she said. "Focusing on similarities between you and people doing well will likely lead to feeling good. Focusing on differences between you and people doing poorly will likely lead to feeling good."
Previous research has demonstrated this tendency to feel better when comparing similarities. But when people focus on differences between them and someone else doing better or worse, they feel negative about the comparison.
"What people focus on appears to be associated with personality traits, mood and a variety of other factors that are not yet well understood," Arigo said, adding that while we don't quite understand how social comparison works, it is still used frequently in health interventions for patients with chronic illness.
Health education materials often include images or descriptions of other patients with the same medical condition, to get patients to think about a hypothetical future.
Smyth said that this research identifies specific gaps in the knowledge about social comparison, such as why people focus on similarities or differences. "In the future, this information may help to improve health communication efforts."
The findings were published in the current issue of Health Psychology Review.