Is Comparison Really the Thief of Joy?
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
There are 63 100 Instagram posts with the hashtag #comparisonisthethiefofjoy. A lot of it is excellent content imploring you to focus on your own journey, take deep breaths when you feel jealous, and improve your relationship with God. I would like to reject that narrative and propose something different: that comparison is a natural function of the brain that does no harm when properly understood. It is very difficult to fight your biology and your brain is designed to be a comparison engine. Let's explore how you can acknowledge your organic thoughts and work with them to maintain your happiness, balance, and perspective. But first, a tiny bit of psychology:
One of the reasons that could explain the ubiquity of social comparisons is that they provide efficient strategies to make judgments and decisions. By focusing on a subset of information rather than engaging in an exhaustive search of one’s knowledge base, social comparisons enable humans to save scarce cognitive resources.
Social comparison is linked to Area 9 of the brain, which is a strip of cortex in the frontal lobe. It is designed to quickly develop perceptions that allow you to make decisions, form opinions, and develop a sense of self. It is not necessarily a reflection of an unhealthy ego or your personality.
Our brains are these amazing supercomputers that create shortcuts so that we don't have to think as hard. These shortcuts are called heuristics and are mostly there to help us respond more rapidly in many ways. For example, one heuristic you use in your daily life is depth perception.
In a social context, we humans often prescribe to the "Imitate the Majority" heuristic that inspires us to act how everyone else is acting in a social setting, even lining up at restaurants with the biggest lines because everyone else is doing it. We believe that it must be worthwhile if others are doing it, and conveniently, now we don't have to make a decision. We compare restaurants by looking at which restaurant garners the most interest. When it comes to others, we compare so that we can develop our self-image, which is largely based on how we stack up against others. Looking downward can make ourselves feel better about our lives, but can lead to overconfidence and arrogance. Looking upward can lead us to feel insecure, inadequate, and less than, but can also breed motivation and inspiration. Either way, we compare as a means to judge our overall state.
In accepting that comparison is natural and we cannot stop ourselves from doing it, how do we still feel okay about ourselves when we do compare?
Below are four key strategies for combatting feelings of insecurity, jealousy, and inferiority:
#1 - Always check your REFERENCE POINTS
Your reference points are the basis of where you make your comparisons from, including high or low, big or small, rich or poor, attractive or unattractive, healthy or unhealthy, etc. So, if you are driving to work in your 2012 Nissan Rogue (great vehicle by the way) and a brand new Tesla Model S pulls up beside you, you may feel inferior because you do not own a fancy car. Your reference point is a top of the line $140 000 luxury vehicle. Then; you glance to your left, and you see a single mother struggling with a baby in a stroller in the snow, waiting for the bus to come. Your reference point is now those who do not own cars. To take this a little further, data shows that only 14 425 of 328.2 million Americans bought a Tesla Model S in 2019, which is 0.0045% of the population. I'm not telling you that you can't dream, of course, and there are many factors that play into someone's car purchasing decision, but doesn't it seem unreasonable to compare our material fortune to what less than 1% of the population can afford? Always check your reference points and research the statistics. Making data-backed decisions and forming opinions based on research and science will serve you in many ways.
#2 - Turn your envy into inspiration and ACTION
This strategy is an easy one. Feel a pang of envy when you see something you want or hear of someone doing really well? Lean into that feeling and dig into where it is coming from. Then, once you acknowledge what your jealousy is all about, put a plan into action and go after what you want. Turn your envy into your inspiration. Easier said than done, I know. A coach can help you with this.
#3 - Practice GRATITUDE
The concept of gratitude is talked about so much these days and can easily play into a culture of toxic positivity. The kind of gratitude that I'm presenting about asks you to know your privilege, understand others and feel deeply about the blessings in your life. It is very different from being thankful and simply acknowledging friends and family at Thanksgiving dinner.
Gratitude is a deep appreciation for all of the factors that lined up magnificently for you to have the things that you have. For example, I am super proud to be Canadian and so thankful to have grown up here. That statement nulls in comparison to proper gratitude. This is gratitude: Whoa, I am so lucky to have just had the pure luck to wake up here 33 years ago. I can't fathom what my ancestors must have gone through to immigrate here from Ireland during the potato famine and to make that sacrifice for me and my family. I did nothing to merit this birthright, but I am so grateful for democracy, equity, and safety.
See the difference? Get deep, people!
#4 - Peel the LAYERS
One of the most beautiful things we can do as a human is understanding one another. While comparing, we can be our most compassionate and enlightened selves when we peel back the layers of why someone may be the way that they are. The answer is not that "people should just try harder" or "people should make better decisions", the answer is that there are several factors that play into why and how someone lives their life. Movie stars are rich because they happen to be employed in an industry that grosses millions of dollars. Models look the way that they do because they were genetically created in a way that is valued by society and have professional photographers, editing, professional esthetics teams and other resources to enable them. Drug addicts are drug-addicted because perhaps they have mental health issues, unresolved trauma, or predisposed genetic conditioning. And you are a wonderful combination of your biology, your upbringing, your environment, and your influences and you deserve grace and compassion, just like everyone else. You can compare, but you can also understand.
With warmth and fortitude,
Kedia, G., Mussweiler, T., & Linden, D. E. (2014). Brain mechanisms of social comparison and their influence on the reward system. Neuroreport, 25(16), 1255–1265. https://doi.org/10.1097/WNR.0000000000000255
Tesla Model S Stats