Researchers just discovered a simple hack for feeling happier during rough times

It’s rarely ever a healthy endeavor, but humans can’t help but compare themselves with their peers. Whether it’s a friend, sibling, or co-worker, it’s almost unavoidable to ponder “why not me?” when someone else gets a lucrative raise, makes a big purchase (car, house), or attains a major accomplishment.

It isn’t so much about jealousy or wishing failure on others; it’s that nagging feeling we’ve all had at one point or another of being left behind in the game of life. 

Scientifically speaking, this feeling or thought that other people are leading a better life than yourself is referred to as “relative deprivation.” Now, relative deprivation or frustration about one’s place in life has been linked to a host of risky and unhealthy habits and behaviors like excessively drinking alcohol, using any number of other drugs, gambling addiction, and using food/overeating as an escape from life’s problems. 

A new study from the University of East Anglia, however, has uncovered perhaps the best way to cope with discontent in the present and avoid falling back on habits like drugs and gambling that ultimately do more harm than good.

Researchers say hope for the future helps people maintain an optimistic outlook and avoid self-destructive behaviors, even if they may not be particularly thrilled with their current life situation.

“I think most people have experienced relative deprivation at some point in their lives. It’s that feeling of being unhappy with your lot, the belief that your situation is worse than others, that other people are doing better than you,” says postgraduate researcher Shahriar Keshavarz, from UEA’s School of Psychology, in a release. “Roosevelt famously said that ‘comparison is the thief of joy’. It’s that feeling you have when a friend buys a new car, or your sister gets married, or a colleague finds a better job or has a better income.”

These findings take on a special kind of relevance in 2020. This year has provided setback after setback for so many of us, and it’s no secret that alcohol and drug use are way up this year as we all search for ways to cope with how our lives have been anything but normal for close to a full calendar year now.

Hope has never felt like a more in-demand, yet elusive, commodity but that’s why it’s more important than ever to try and cultivate some.

“Relative deprivation can trigger negative emotions like anger and resentment, and it has been associated with poor coping strategies like risk taking, drinking, taking drugs or gambling. But not everyone scoring high on measures of relative deprivation makes these poor life choices. We wanted to find out why some people seem to cope better, or even use the experience to their advantage to improve their own situation,” Keshavarz explains.

“There is a lot of evidence to show that remaining hopeful in the face of adversity can be advantageous, so we wanted to see if hope can help people feel happier with their lot and buffer against risky behaviours,” he continues.

In the absence of hope, it’s easy to understand why someone would turn to “quick fixes” like food or gambling. These practices provide momentary relief, and if an individual has no hope that anything will change moving forward, such vices seem like the only answer. 

Once hope for the future enters the equation, though, everything changes. No one’s saying it’s easy; so often in life, things seem like they couldn’t possibly get any worse.

In these moments the future can feel like a bleak destination, and maintaining hope for a better tomorrow can feel impossible. Ironically, or perhaps poetically depending on your perspective, it’s during these tough times that we all need hope the most.

Researchers conducted two experiments in their lab for this study. First, 55 participants were quizzed on their usual levels of hope and relative deprivation. Then, researchers deliberately tried to get each participant to feel bad about themselves by showing them some big accomplishments attained by their peers (based on each person’s income, gender, and age).

Finally, after all that, all participants were told to play a gambling game that involved taking real risks and placing real bets for legitimate cash prizes. 

“The aim of this part of the study was to see whether feeling relatively deprived – elicited by the knowledge that one has less income than similar others – causes greater risk-taking among low-hopers and decreased risk-taking among high-hopers,” comments Dr. Piers Fleming, from UEA’s School of Psychology. “We looked at the people who scored high for relative deprivation, the ones that thought their situation in life was worse than those around them. And we looked at those who also scored high for hope.”

“We found that the volunteers who scored high for hope, were much less likely to take risks in the game. Those who weren’t too hopeful, were a lot more likely to take risks,” he adds.

The second experiment included 122 participants and took on a more real-world approach. Each person had gambled at least once over the prior year and was given surveys measuring their levels of hopefulness, relative deprivation, and gambling issues.

“When we looked at these scores compared to scores for hope and relative deprivation, we found that increased hope was associated with a decreased likelihood of losing control of gambling behaviour – even in those who experienced relative deprivation,” Keshavarz says. 

At the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, the night is darkest before dawn. This year has been an incredible test, but maintaining some hope for a better tomorrow can help us get through today.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Gambling Studies.