Comparison is The Thief of Joy

Toby Hazlewood

But only if we choose poorly who we’re comparing ourselves to

Photo by Isi Parente on Unsplash

It was apparently Theodore Roosevelt who proposed that “comparison is the thief of joy”.

While I agree with the sentiment, comparison does have a role for anyone trying to assess their progress in life. What matters is who or what you choose to compare yourself against. Unfortunately, most of us choose poorly.

Many choose to look upwards, objectifying those who enjoy the status and success that they crave.

They forget that such comparisons will be between themselves and someone elses carefully filtered and curated highlight reel, which represents the best of that person. This seldom reveals the full picture.

We compare upwards with those who are in a position we aspire to be, in the mistaken belief that it will somehow be motivating. We choose the popular, attractive, high-achievers to whom success seems to come easily.

Such comparisons only serve fuel for an onslaught of self-hatred and pity. We berate ourselves for not measuring up to others, selectively ignoring that we know little of their struggles. We see only the successes without knowing about their failures, frailties and the insecurities they fight daily.

We see only what we want to see, and then use that to make ourselves feel bad.

I think I’m pretty good at remembering this for the most part. Sure, I still feel envious of those who have what I want, and I resent that success seems to come easily to others. I remember though that I’m only seeing the graceful swan gliding serenely across the lake, not the furious paddling beneath the surface.

Choosing who to compare ourselves against

“Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today.” -Jordan B. Peterson

I thought until recently that I had a healthy outlook regarding comparisons. That was until I reflected on the above quote from the occasionally-divisive psychologist and author, Jordan B. Peterson taken from his bestselling book, The 12 Rules for Life — An Antidote to Chaos.

I’m not particularly prone to to comparing myself, my life and what I have with others. Instead, I’ve driven many of my choices, decisions and actions through comparing myself today with the version of me that I want to be in the future.

That has served to be as unhealthy as comparing myself with other people.

In many moments day-to-day I’ve been guided in how I think, feel and act through comparing myself with how a future version of me would think, feel or act.

Such comparison has often been the trigger for uncomfortable and unpleasant emotional responses, which tend to manifest in thoughts like these:

Someone who does as much as I do for others should be appreciated and treated with more respect than I get — I’ll tell myself this when feeling taken for granted by my kids or anyone else. The version of me that I picture in the future is respected and revered by his kids. They understand that he speaks with wisdom and acts with selflessness and they appreciate him for that. I resent those around me for not treating me the same way here and now as I imagine that future-me gets treated.

Someone as confident, relaxed, likeable and generous as me should have more friends and a more fulfilling social-life than I do. — I picture the man that I want to be, who is popular, well-liked and widely appreciated by those around him. A fatalistic assessment of my life right now seems inferior to that of future-me.

Someone who meditates daily and has done so for years should be a lot better at it by now, and should feel a lot calmer than I do. — When I was starting out in meditating I envisaged that having clocked-up 11,000 minutes of meditation I’d have achieved a new level of zen-like calm. It doesn’t feel that way now — I’m not as good as future-me must be. I’m not as relaxed as I imagine him to be.

Someone who has been working for 20 years, mostly earning good money throughout, should be more financially stable than I am. — I berate myself for not achieving the level of wealth and success that I thought would be mine after 20-years of work. Future-me would have it all sorted out by now, sitting pretty on a pile of cash instead of being mildly worried at all times about the arrival of an unexpected bill or a sudden loss of income.

Someone who works as hard as I do, who persists in their efforts, is as diligent and disciplined as me should be making better progress than I am. — I feel empty and disappointed when I then evaluate my progress compared to future-me who would have it all figured out by now.

Future-me finds life easy

When I think of future-me — the person I’d like to be, that I’ve always intended to be, I picture that he would drive a fancy car, dress in nice clothes, have the latest iPhone, a selection of fine Swiss watches and other cutting-edge gadgets at his disposal. He would give off an aura of success to all around him.

At times, the comparison between me and him has guilted or shamed me into vain attempts to fast forward my life, to try and be that person. When I’ve spent money recklessly to equip myself with the trappings of future-me, I’ve actually moved further away from becoming that person. Future-me is also financially smart, has investments and provides stability for him and his family as well as having a nice car.

Photo by Ahmedvevo on Unsplash

Present-me has less money saved than him, and a car that’s heavily financed.

Comparing myself with future-me only serves to strip away a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from the things I’ve achieved. With future-me being a constantly moving target, always multiple steps ahead in the journey, I never stand a chance of measuring up and so inadequacy and demoralisation inevitably follows.

Comparison is necessary to some degree if we’re to measure progress towards a goal or to quantify improvement in any aspect of our lives. It doesn’t have to be a thief of joy, and it can instead be a source of reassurance and encouragement. It all depends on who and what we compare ourselves to.

There’s a lot of sense in what Jordan Peterson advocates.

Recognise how far you've come

My progress should only be measured by comparing myself now to a past version of me — that’s a fairer way of assessing how far I’ve come. Using future-me as the benchmark is unfair and unhelpful — who’s to say that I could ever measure up.

Maybe I never would, and perhaps I shouldn’t want to.

Future-me is, at best a vision or a dream of the person that I think I want to become. That vision has been helpful when it prompted me to explore things that I thought future-me wanted. I’ve learned that for the most part they mean very little. The fancy car doesn’t make me happy.

What is important and what does make me happy is constantly growing as a person, achieving greater levels of self-awareness and understanding. What makes me happy is appreciating the things that really matter in life.

When I compare myself now with who I was yesterday, I’m pretty happy with what I see and with the progress I’ve made. In this way comparison is a source of joy, not a thief of it.

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