“Comparison is the thief of joy.” — Theodore Roosevelt
Who do you most frequently compare yourself to?
If you’re not sure, try this question: Who have you compared yourself to in the last 24 hours?
If you’re still not sure, think of the last time you checked your Facebook or Instagram feed. Which updates made you feel envious, or made you feel as if your life paled in comparison? In turn, did any posts make you feel smug, or better than that person?
The comparison game—or war—is as old as humanity.
I avoid mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds as much as possible. As part of my work (I speak and write about wellness, resilience, burnout and mental health), I read the studies that show that time on social media feeds increases depression and envy and decreases well-being. This motivates me to use social media purposefully, specifically choosing what I will look at and keeping it to a minimum.
I almost always regret it when I let my guard down and start scrolling. I’ll inevitably see something that makes me feel bad about myself or my life, or something else that makes me feel envious, that I’m missing something from my life that others have (something I probably wasn’t even thinking of until I saw it). I posted about the comparison trap the other day on Facebook, and a senior citizen posted a comment that made my heart ache:
“Reading about everyone’s vacations kills me. Not in my budget, ever. And these posts never stop.”
I’ve written previously about developing awareness about the impact of your social media posts on others. I stopped posting pictures from my vacations years ago. Share those, perhaps, with a limited audience, maybe close family and friends who really want to see them. But…ask yourself first if they really want to see them. Before you show anything to anyone, review what you know about their life. When’s the last time they went on a tropical vacation? Maybe they dream of going to the tropics but have never had (and may never have) the opportunity. You’d be surprised how many people don’t actually enjoy pictures of you lounging by a clear blue sea with a coconut drink in your hand.
Back to Roosevelt’s quote about comparison being the thief of joy. In addition to cultivating awareness with respect to inadvertently (or advertently) provoking comparison and therefore stealing the joy of others, become a student of how you squander your own contentedness by getting sucked into the comparison trap.
Here are some tips:
1. Become aware of, and avoid, your triggers.
Start noticing the situations that cause you to play the comparison game. Social media, as I’ve mentioned, is a big one for most of us. What about other circumstances? Is there a certain person who is constantly bragging about this or that, or asks you questions about your life that are designed to make you feel inferior? Are there certain activities, such as strolling through a high-end shopping mall, or driving through an expensive neighborhood, that frequently make you feel discontented with your life (when you were feeling just fine about your life, an hour before)?
Make a list of who and what you frequently envy or compare yourself to. Write how each negatively affects you, and why it’s actually a waste of your time. Resolve to catch yourself next time. Avoid comparison triggers if you can, especially if the activity or contact doesn’t add meaning or any real value to your life.
2. Remind yourself that other people’s “outsides” can’t be compared to your “insides”
This is such a helpful habit to cultivate. Unless you’re really close to someone, you can’t use their outward appearance to judge the reality of their life. People carefully curate the social media versions of their lives, and do the same with the lives they live out publicly. You may have had the experience, as I have, of being shocked when a couple that appeared to be happy and solid announce their divorce. Continue to wish others well, of course, but in the event that their life gives you reason to feel bad about yours, remind yourself that you don’t actually know what goes on behind closed doors.
3. Repeat whenever necessary: “Money doesn’t buy happiness, and never will”
It’s well established that wealth, beyond having the basics in life, isn’t associated with increased happiness or well-being. I used to perform flamenco dance at an exclusive resort frequented by celebrities and the mega-wealthy, and a manager there once told me that she’d never seen so many unhappy people in her life. Money and things provide temporary boosts of joy; their inevitable inability to provide lasting sustenance is usually more disappointing than anything else.
4. Be grateful for the good in your life, and resist any lies that shout “It’s not enough”
If you commit yourself to being deeply grateful for what’s good in your life, and remind yourself of it daily, you’ll be far less vulnerable to comparison and envy. If someone or something triggers that ugly feeling of negative comparison, stop and remind yourself of what’s good in your life, right now. There is so much.
5. Use comparison as motivation to improve what actually matters
This human propensity to want what others have is such a waste of time, unless what you see and “covet” in another is something of deep worth, such as their generosity or kindness. Who do you admire? What kinds of comparisons might actually be healthy for you? For example, there are women I know well who are extraordinarily kind and generous wives, mothers, and friends. They truly make a difference in their worlds, and I want to be more and more like them. Who inspires you to live better, in the way that matters most? Spend your precious time and thoughts on this, instead.
Imagine if you could elevate the comparison game to a useful art form. Stop falling prey to its dark underbelly, which does little more than increase feelings of misery and lack in your life. Use comparison, instead, to become a better person and maybe even make your little corner of the world a better place.
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