Comparison is the thief of joy.– Theodore Roosevelt
Do you ever compare yourself to others? Sure you do. And if you’re like many of us (i.e., human), it was probably not long ago. Research indicates that around 10% of our collective thoughts center around a comparison of some kind. 1 That’s 2.4 hours a day, 16.8 hours a week, 72 hours a month, 876 hours a year, ok, you get the idea. But there’s something about that last number that’s downright terrifying.
By and large, dabbling in the “comparison game” is not a positive or productive practice and will most often breed resentment, jealousy, or judgment. And while there is a lesser argued school of thought that feels comparison isn’t always bad when used to create inspiration, aside from briefly touching on this idea, we’re going to focus on the reasons why you’ll likely be better off avoiding comparison altogether.
To systematize what would otherwise end up a scattered assortment of rambling and free-flowing thoughts resembling a long-form essay hinging on a book, here are the headlines for the concepts I’ll be discussing.
Feel free to read straight through or jump around to the topics that interest you most – this is a judgment-free zone.
It’s Human Nature to Compare
The fact is, we compare. It’s literally ingrained in our DNA and the reason why humans are referred to as the “comparing creatures.” Let’s dive right in...
The part of the brain responsible for this so-called “self-other mergence” is area 9, a strip of cortex that spans the frontal lobe. (Picture it right behind your forehead.) “Area 9 shows up often in studies of social cognition,” said study researcher Marco Wittmann, a doctoral student in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Oxford in England, “so it wasn’t too surprising to see that it plays a role in gauging one’s performance against others.” 2
In their publication, The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy, Evolutionary psychologists Sarah Hill and David Buss explain that the process of natural selection is inherently competitive. This process is reflected in today’s society in which individuals must continually struggle to acquire relevant resources or positions that others are simultaneously attempting to acquire.
One of the oldest examples of social comparison and competition is in the domain of mate choice. 3 Far fewer individuals embody the characteristics that men and women most desire in their romantic partners than individuals who would like to mate with them. Therefore, individuals must compete for access to these “high mate value” mates, and only a lucky few will emerge victoriously. Because highly desirable mates exist in limited supply – as is true for any scarce resource – those individuals able to capture the hearts of these individuals necessarily do so at the expense of their competitors.
This reality of competitive nature is true whether pursuing a desirable mate, navigating one’s social status, or attempting to secure a coveted job. Whether or not we are aware of it or do it directly or indirectly, we continually compete with friends, family, and rivals to gain access to valuable resources necessary for survival. This is as true now as it was for our distant ancestors. How people stack up relative to others decides many important outcomes in life. 4
The comparisons going on in your brain shift your perceptions of your own abilities based on how you perceive others and your ratings of that person’s abilities based on your perception of your own. Confused yet?
Ok, enough science talk, you get the point. If you’re still with me, let’s move on.
Comparing Breeds Resentment
We look at what others are doing, and we wish we were doing that too. Or perhaps we condescendingly observe what they’re doing and judge them, seeing ourselves as better. One of these makes us feel bad about ourselves, the other makes us feel superior, but neither makes us happy. 5
The concept of “Envy Up, Scorn Down” was coined by Psychology Professor Susan T. Fiske of Princeton University. Also referred to as upward comparison, the notion is that we envy those we feel are in a better situation than we are or have something we wish we had. Conversely, we scorn those, downward comparison, or look down on those we feel are subordinate or inferior to us (a.k.a. the whole “sucks to be them” mentality). 6
Fiske goes on to state that “Americans like to think that we are beyond social class, that only Europeans make class distinctions, as a remnant of feudalism or maybe a byproduct of restricted mobility.” Most people tend to identify as middle class, and we’re taught to believe that America is the “land of opportunity” and that “hard work pays off.” Fiske explains that the unfortunate reality is these beliefs are not as valid as we’ve been brought up to believe.
Social class is just one example of social comparison, and while I find its implications fascinating, I’ll avoid hijacking this post by discussing it further. If you’d like to delve deeper into the topic, Susan Fiske’s book “Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us” should scratch the itch.
Whether we compare our homes, incomes, cars we drive, clothes we wear, the extravagance of our vacation destinations, or a limitless number of other things, we all do it. While we may not always admit our comparison with friends, family, and colleagues, we are all guilty.
Without a doubt, we may differ in our susceptibility, but the act of comparison is rampant. We compare to evaluate ourselves, to improve our standing, and to enhance our self-esteem.
If comparison contaminates, envy and scorn are worse. Comparison can be adaptive, providing information and motivation, but the feelings that follow can be poisonous. Envy says, “I wish I had what you have,” but it implies, “and I wish you did not have it.” Scorn says, “You are unworthy of my attention, but I know you are down there somewhere.” 7
And then there’s a term we’re all familiar with, Schadenfreude.
The Japanese have a saying: “The misfortunes of others taste like honey.” The French speak of joie maligne, a diabolical delight in other people’s suffering. In Hebrew, enjoying other people’s catastrophes is simcha la‑ed, in Mandarin xìng‑zāi‑lè‑huò, in Serbo-Croat, it is zlùradōst, and in Russian zloradstvo. More than 2,000 years ago, Romans spoke of malevolentia. Earlier still, the Greeks described epichairekakia (literally epi, over, chairo, rejoice, kakia, disgrace). “To see others suffer does one good,” wrote the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. 8
You get the idea.
Make no mistake. Over time, and in many unique places, languages, and methods, when it comes to making ourselves happy, humans have long relied on the humiliations and failures of others. Strangely enough, there’s never been an English word for this nefarious delight. In 1926, a journalist in The Spectator asserted that “there is no English word for Schadenfreude because there is no such feeling here.” 9 HA! He was wrong, obviously.
We know how to enjoy the failures of others, but ask us to name this noxious delight, and we go speechless. And so we adopted the German word Schadenfreude. Schaden, meaning damage or harm, and freude, meaning joy or pleasure: damage-joy.
We may indeed be living in an “Age of Schadenfreude” and have concern that this emotion is leading us down a dark path. But as with all emotions, condemning it only gets us so far. We really need to demystify what this emotion does for us and what it tells us about our relationships with ourselves and each other.
Social Media is an Arsenic Poison*
Ok, that title has got “clickbait” smeared all over it and might be a tad dramatic, but it grabbed your attention.
You’ve likely heard how the pervasiveness of social media in today’s society perpetuates social comparison. Old news, right? Social media provides us a front-row seat to the “highlight reel” of our friends, family, acquaintances, celebrities, and anyone else we choose to follow, making it easier than ever to compare ourselves to them. It’s never been simpler to find someone “better” to compare with, which only makes us feel worse about ourselves.
John Lee Dumas articulates the “social comparison trap” beautifully by stating, “we live in a world where everyone is sharing one perfect second of their imperfect day, and we’re interpreting that perfect second as a life of perfection. However, the reality is much different. They are living a life of quiet desperation like the rest of us.”
The truth is, we all know that what we see on social media is a bite-sized piece, a snippet of that individual’s life. Rarely does someone show us the bad, the ugly, the boring, because who would want to see that? It’s just so much easier to play the envy card. Who of us isn’t just as guilty?
I honestly can’t remember the last time I posted something with the thought of “gosh, no one is going to be impressed by this or find it remotely interesting, but what the heck, let’s just throw it up there anyway.”
If it’s not going to garner attention, interest, feedback, buzz, and some sort of “hey there, look at me and what I just did,” why even share it? And that, my friends, is the core of the problem. We allow our perception of what others might think to dictate what we do.
In this age of “Fakebook,” I respect people who go out of their way to post the “real stuff” online. Especially those “influencers” who have a significant follower base.
One example is the actress Kristen Bell. To the wider global audience, Kristen is known as this glamourous, beautiful blond bombshell who embodies the image of flawless Hollywood perfection. But take a few minutes to scroll through her feed, and you’ll see numerous examples of photos and videos where she purposefully gives the world a “behind the scenes” glimpse into her world; whether it’s make-up-less images, videos of her brushing her teeth, or her husband’s (Dax Shepherd) ear wax removal kit. (Gross, right?)
I’m not suggesting you go to such measures, and I do believe there is such a thing as “oversharing.” While there are numerous examples, this is one person’s attempt to chip away and “break down the wall” of the rampant fakeness of celebrityhood, and I applaud the effort.
With social media’s help, we have allowed ourselves to envy other’s things, experiences, accomplishments – you name it. While impossible to avoid completely, I encourage you to remind yourself that what you’re seeing is merely a glimpse, a snapshot of their life, real or otherwise.
That perfect-looking, blissfully happy couple standing on the beach in Hawaii with the backdrop of the most spectacular sunset you’ve ever seen might, in fact, be two marital counseling sessions away from divorce. They just happened to pause for a moment to capture the occasion in an attempt to portray (or misrepresent) how “great” their lives are and, in turn, hope to generate some envy amongst their friends by seeing how amazing their experience is. Oh, that, and they edited the heck out of their photo to make sure those sunset sky colors really popped! That level of deceptive effort and “fakeness” is exhausting just to read about, not so much for what we’re seeing, but in what is being covered up.
There’s nothing wrong with sharing memorable moments on social media for friends and family to experience. For most of us, that makes sense and feels natural. As with most things, the importance lies in the intent.
Fight tooth and nail not to allow yourself to be influenced by how you think others will perceive what you share. You do you. Likewise, don’t allow yourself to look upon what others post on social media as anything more than a brief moment captured and shared. Remember, there’s always more to the story.
Day 2 Vs. Day 2,000
The biggest problem with comparing your success with someone else’s is that you never know what chapter of their life you are comparing yourself with. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my almost (gasp) 40 years of life, it’s that if someone is much better than you at something, they probably work a lot harder at it than you do. Let that sink in for a moment.
Assuming that someone else’s success comes easy and required less work than it would be for you to accomplish something similar is a dangerous and frankly unfair trap to fall into. It’s unfair to you because you’re allowing yourself to unreasonably compare your progress with someone else’s. And it’s unfair to them because, in your assumption that it “came easy” for them, you’re taking away from the effort involved for them to achieve the success they’ve earned.
Sure, you can make the argument that natural talent and ability will give some people a leg up; I’m not going to argue that it can be a meaningful differentiator. But still, most of us (myself included) underestimate the amount of effort poured into that talent to develop it. It’s much easier to play the self-pity card and allow our egos to assume that someone else has it much easier than we do, but let’s save that lesson (the self-pity and ego one) for another day.
As a self-identified overachiever of sorts (and this is not a badge of honor), I’m guilty of this practice many times over. I find myself falling into this trap, most specifically as it relates to health and fitness goals. I’ll set myself a goal and work diligently to that goal but, without a doubt, end up comparing my lack of progress to someone who has been working towards that same goal for longer than me.
A great example of this is weight training, strength training, to be more exact. Let’s say I decide I want to back squat 500lbs – a lofty goal, mind you, but why not aim high, right? Let’s say I’m currently at 350lbs. As I’ve hinted at above, I’m just shy of 40 years old and have realized the older I get that with weight training, as is true in many other areas of life, the philosophy of “risk vs. reward” is an important one to consider.
Now there are “kids” 20 years younger than me who can back squat 500lbs, let alone many other individuals my age and even older. But I’d be willing to bet that each of those individuals has been lifting for years towards accomplishing this goal. How dare I assume my required effort should be anything less.
It’s almost laughable when you think about the ridiculousness of making this sort of comparison, and yet each of us does something similar every day. What are your comparison triggers? They likely gravitate to the things most important to you.
Take time to identify your most common comparison traps and ask yourself for each one if you’re making a comparison off on an unfair basis. I’d be willing to bet that 99.9% of the time, the answer is almost always a resounding yes.
Comparing Takes Focus off You
You can control one life — yours. When we constantly compare ourselves to others, we waste precious energy focusing on other peoples’ lives rather than our own. We each get 86,400 seconds each day. And using even one to compare yourself or your accomplishments to someone else’s is one second too many.
There is never a need to get worked up about things you can’t control. – Marcus Aurelius
We typically compare the worst we know of ourselves to the best we presume about others. Guess what? That person driving around in the $100k+ car you’re lusting after might have a personal life that’s in complete shambles, all because of the time and energy devoted to acquiring the money to buy the fancy car. Is that the sort of sacrifice you’re willing to make? I know I’m not.
How to Stop the Comparison Game
Be aware of its ill effects.
As with any new habit or practice, being aware or conscious of it is the first and most important step. While awareness alone won’t alleviate the problem, it will all but guarantee an improvement. Try to be aware when you start comparing yourself to others … once you’ve developed this awareness, try to stop yourself as quickly as possible.
Remind yourself how unproductive and destructive this thought process is, and then start thinking about all the things you DO have, the things you love, the people you have, all that life has given you. Make this a regular practice, and you’ll start to be happier with your life.
Celebrate your own successes.
What are some things in your life that make you most proud? Whether it’s achievements, relationships, or otherwise, make a list of those things in your life that can be defined as “successes.” It may take you a minute to come up with even a shortlist but don’t fall victim to thinking this is due to a lack of achievements, but rather it’s more likely due to how you’ve been self-identifying these things in your life.
Are you a runner? Hang those medals up proudly where you’ll see them every day and be reminded of your accomplishments. Did you just earn a degree or professional certificate of some kind? Invest in having it professionally framed, so you admire it every time you see it on the wall. The energy required to obtain these achievements is something to be proud of and to celebrate.
When we habitually compare ourselves to others, we undervalue our own accomplishments and self-worth. The longer we make this a habitual practice, the more muted our inner voice becomes, make it harder to remind us of our own successes.
The ability to look at your own strengths and see your true value can be a challenging habit to develop, for some more than others, but it’s worth the sweat equity. It’s actually one of the keys to success because, without this ability, you will be unmotivated, you won’t believe in yourself, and you’ll never reach your true potential.
Analyze your values and adjust as needed.
Take inventory of where your values lie. Why do you care what others think? Do you find yourself caring more about people’s perceptions of certain things/areas in your life than others? For example, are you more concerned with how you feel people perceive your looks than your financial status? Are you more concerned with giving off the “smartest guy in the room” vibe?
Answering these questions honestly will enable you to identify the areas which require the most attention. Why are you concerned with how you stack up against your friends or colleagues? Does it matter? Does their opinion, right or wrong, make you less of a person?
We all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.
– Marcus Aurelius
If you’re spending so much energy concerned about how you rank in “worldly statuses,” begin the process of shifting your energy to things that truly matter in your life and ultimately bring you happiness. No one who has found what enough means in their life is willing to actively waste time and energy on comparing their life with others.
Compete less and appreciate more.
The first and most important step in overcoming the habit of competition is to routinely appreciate and compliment the contributions of others. The more competitive the individual, the more difficult it is to genuinely compliment the successes of others.
Unless you’re toeing the starting line as a professional athlete, chances are, the competition only exists in your mind. Ask yourself, does anyone really care if I win or lose the competition I’ve concocted in my head? Does it even matter? I ask myself this question, A LOT. While not impossible, it’s difficult to appreciate the talents and successes of those around us when we’re consumed with how we can achieve more and be “better” than they are.
Here’s where things might get a little “touchy-feely” for some of you, but stick with me. As previously mentioned, the things you spend the most time thinking about will undoubtedly be most present in your life. If you constantly think negatively about your life, what you have (or don’t have), and fail to appreciate the good in your life, this negative self-talk will fester and insidiously spread to every part of your life.
Our attitude is quite possibly the single most important thing in our lives, of which we have complete control. Our attitude determines the way we see the world and the way the world sees us.
Your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought, for the human spirit is colored by such impressions.
– Marcus Aurelius
If you contort your body into a certain sitting position day after day, eventually the curvature of your spine changes. A doctor can tell if a person sat at a desk for a living. If you shove your feet into tiny, narrow dress shoes every day, your feet will begin to take on a new form as well. 10
The same is true for our mind. If you perpetually allow your mind to focus on a negative outlook, soon enough everything you encounter will seem negative.
We’re all familiar with the common expression or proverbial phrase “is the glass half empty or half full.” It’s used as a general litmus test to determine if one’s attitude is of an optimistic or pessimistic nature.
I heard a story about a young boy who flipped that comparison upside down. After drinking half of his glass of milk, he set it down and announced: “I’m an optimist. My glass is half-empty.” When told that his view was pessimistic, he replied: “Not if you don’t like what’s in it.”
Most of us don’t have a high level of attitude awareness. We recognize the obvious highs and lows, but it’s the day-to-day “baseline” that we often fail to be cognizant of.
While many who skew towards the pessimist label try to spin their behavior as one of a realist, in most cases, they undoubtedly are always looking for the negative or potential downside. When this develops into habitual practice, it becomes the default lens through which you see the world.
If we turn that upside down and begin the practice of identifying all the things in our lives that bring joy, happiness, and a feeling of self-worth, we will consistently begin to recognize things for which we are grateful.
Remember: nobody is perfect.
I am a firm believer that if you’re not routinely working to improve your life and better yourself as a person, then you’re wasting the precious gift of time. That belief is a double-edged sword, and while it can motivate you to strive for improvement, it can also easily set up unattainable goals.
Don’t allow yourself to become trapped in the pursuit of perfection. The scary thing about “perfection” is that it’s often a mirage we’re tricked into chasing. It doesn’t really exist, and the closer we get, the further away we feel. Strive for progress, not perfection.
Find inspiration without comparison.
There’s a difference between inspiration and comparison. It’s not altogether impossible to find inspiration in admiring who someone is or what they’ve accomplished.
Jocko Willink, the author of “Discipline Equals Freedom,” among others, inspires me to work towards living a more disciplined life. For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, to quote Tim Ferriss, “Jocko is one of the scariest human beings imaginable.” He’s a retired Navy Seal and all-around tough dude. My point is that reading about his experiences and his lessons on discipline inspire me. I don’t fall into comparing myself with him, and that’s the fundamental difference.
Inspiration tells you anything is possible.
Comparison tells you everything is impossible. – Jon Acuff
We must first obtain the skill to distinguish the difference between inspiration and comparison and the slippery slope that exists. Identify practices in your life to prevent you from falling into a downward spiral of comparison, but rather observe other’s accomplishments and use them to “fuel your fire” or inspire you to new levels of success. I hope you find people who inspire you. The world is full of them.
Compare/compete with yourself.
Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today. Think about who you can be today.
Jordan Peterson says, “no one else is really like you in any deep sense. The conditions of your life are unique.” 11 Could you compare your tomorrow with your yesterday? Could you use your own judgment and ask yourself what that better tomorrow might be?
Make a deal with yourself to strive for incremental growth and positive change in your life. Not only is this a measurable task, but it’s rewarding to experience self-progression and improvement.
As we’ve previously discussed, it’s impossible not to compare. But if you can work to change the focus, the central target of your comparison to yourself, the perspective, and growth potential will change your life.
After all, in life, we see only what we aim for. We should all strive to live a life true to ourselves instead of the life we think others expect of us.
There is no end to the possible number of comparisons.
The habit can never be overcome by attaining success. It is an endless loop of misery. We’re envious of one person while they envy someone else. There will always be something—or someone—else to focus on. It’s sobering to consider that the rival we’re so jealous of may, in fact, be jealous of us.
Walk the path you’ve been given to walk. Comparing your journey to someone else’s is the best way to miss the one you’re actually on.
A person enslaved to a life of comparison will never be free. Are you willing to pay the price they paid to get what you think you want?
Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.– Jordan B. Peterson
1 | Social Comparison Theory (Psychology Today)
2 | Why Comparing Yourself to Others is Normal (Live Science, July 20, 2016)
3 | The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy (Sarah E. Hill & David M. Buss)
4 | Id.
5 | The Heartbreaking Cruelty of Comparing Yourself to Others (Zen Habits, Sept. 17, 2014)
6 | Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Comparison Divides Us (American Psychologist Nov. 2010, Susan T. Fiske, Department of Psychology, Princeton University)
7 | Id.
8 | Not Just a German Word: A Brief History of Schadenfreude (Tiffany Watt Smith, November 21, 2018)
9 | Id.
10 | The Daily Stoic (Ryan Holiday)
11 | 12 Rules For Life, Jordan Peterson