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That subconscious need to keep up with the Joneses could be destroying your mental health. How do you escape the rat race?

Our — all too often rather subconscious — tendency to compare ourselves with others and value ourselves in relation to them can have dire consequences. That old "need" to "keep up with the Joneses" can drive us to bankrupcy if we're not careful, but it can also affect the very core of our emotional being by destroying our self esteem and making us feel inferior no matter how much debt we take on.

Just why do we, humans, do this, how can we stop, and what happens if we do?

We're Pack Animals

Humans might be the smartest and most complex life forms on the planet, but deep down, we're really no more than animals. We're animals, and pack animals at that. As social animals, we care about our status in relation to the rest of the pack. Our societies are organized hierarchically, much like those of other pack animals such as wolves.

That inherent, primal drive to try to rise to the top is simply part of our biology.

We want to be liked and respected. We want to not be less than those who surround us, and would prefer to be slightly better. And our pack-animal society has conditioned us to value instant gratification. The feelings that result from worries over how we fare in comparison to others even has a name now: status anxiety.

When discussing finances, that desire to achieve "upward mobility" is deemed healthy and motivational. Our need to keep up with the Joneses is about more than money, though. It is, primarily, ultimately about appearances — appearances that allow us to attain a desirable status within society. This drive can lead us to brag about our kids' successes in school, the universities we attended, the area we come from, and the spouse we married.

Outward Signs Of Wealth

It can also, as all too many have experienced themselves, lead us to seek to display outward signs of wealth. Cars, houses, flat-screen TVs, the after-school programs our kids attend and the latest cell phone can all become weapons in the battle to make those we want to impress be impressed. If keeping up with the Joneses is about creating impressions, however, it's good to remember that appearances can deceive.

In the age of the credit card, outward signs of wealth no longer necessarily denote wealth. Instead, they can denote the exact opposite: tons of crippling debt.

While you go out of your way to make sure that your 10 year old gets the same new laptop that her friend has, because "you too want the best for your kids", after all, consider the possibility that your peers are just stuck in the same trap you are, forsaking retirement savings so they can keep up with you. A demonstrated 43 percent of Americans spend more than they earn, after all. We may all have the ability to look like emperors now, but in the process fail to see that most of us aren't wearing any clothes, as the tale goes.

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