And when you do, how to not feel so bad about it
“Comparison is the thief of joy.”
~ Theodore Roosevelt
When’s the last time you compared yourself to someone else? If you’re like many of us (i.e., human), it was probably not long ago.
The fact is, we compare. Whether we compare our homes, incomes, intelligences, vacation destinations, Tinder profiles, or a limitless number of other things, we all do it.
And when we do it, we feel like shit.
Study after study has shown that just scrolling through social media makes us feel unhappy or depressed, and it is largely because of the comparisons we make between ourselves and others (see here; here; here; here; and here).
So, you can start by limiting your time on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn (and I’d highly recommend this!), but that doesn’t solve the problem, does it? Because, although this might make you happier, it won’t help you deal with the moments when you do make comparisons.
And let’s face it, social media doesn’t have a monopoly on social comparisons. We’ve been doing this for as long as there have been humans, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Noticing that your friend has started a successful business might cause you to ruminate on all the ways you’re worthless by comparison or on all the things you wish you had. But, it doesn’t have to be this way.
So, what do we do?
First, we need to remind ourselves that life isn’t as complicated as we make it out to be. We love to throw up our hands and give in to hopelessness. Stop that… by following the next step.
Second, we need to accept that if anything is going to change about our lives, we’re going to have to change our behavior. This often means changing how we think or what we think about.
Does this sound unpleasantly difficult?
Yes, behavior change isn’t easy. But, living a shitty life isn’t easy, either. So, take your pick.
If you want to compare yourself to others less or feel less shitty when you do, you’re going to need to change something you do on a regular basis. Changing how we think or what we think about isn’t a matter of simply learning new knowledge. It’s recognizing that an old pattern of thinking isn’t good for us, and replacing it with a better pattern of thinking.
In the end, this is all about happiness. So remember: happiness isn’t an award you win and then get to keep forever. Happiness is a state of mind that comes and goes like any other emotion. If you want more happy and less unhappy in your life, you’re going to have to change your mind.
So, how do we stop comparing ourselves to others?
Getting what you want won’t bring you lasting happiness
For me, one of the hardest parts about comparing myself to other people is the dissatisfaction I feel with being where I am. I look at other people’s success (and the happiness I perceive accompanies it) and I want it. Then, inevitably, my gaze turns inward toward my perceived lack of success. This can be disheartening, to put it mildly.
Once this happens, my mind runs amuck. I start questioning all the choices I’ve ever made. I start to feel dissatisfied with what I do have. And I have a less positive outlook for the future.
It’s a nasty cycle that most of us get caught up in, yet we’d all rather avoid.
So, how do we avoid this cycle?
It starts by recognizing something that you already know from a lifetime of experience: getting what you want doesn’t cause lasting happiness.
Just consider how many desires you’ve had satisfied over the course of your life. You got that ice cream cone you wanted as a child; you passed that important exam back in university; to got that great job you desperately wanted; you met a wonderful partner.
The fact is, we have succeeded in life. We have had our desires satisfied. Yet, none of them have imparted any lasting happiness to our lives.
The same is true about comparing ourselves to others. We compare ourselves because we desire what they have, but getting what they have won’t make us happy.
What we continuously fail to notice is that happiness isn’t bought or earned by our successes, any more than sadness or joy or anger.
Yet, tragically, we continue to run from one desire to the next like an addict seeking the next fix, as if the next desire is somehow different from all the desires that came before it.
The paths of the mind
Our thoughts are like paths in a forest. When a path isn’t used frequently it’s difficult to use: the vegetation is overgrown and the ground is uneven. But, as more people use the path, the vegetation is pushed back and the ground is flattened. This makes it easier for people to use and also causes more people to use it.
Simply put, the more a path is used, the more people will tend to use it. This is a self-reinforcing cycle.
The same is true of the mind. The more that we have certain patterns of thoughts or behaviors, the more likely it is that we will have those thoughts or perform those behaviors again.
If we are constantly thinking, If I fulfil my next desire then I will be happy, we’re actually training our minds to seek out things in the world that we want but don’t have. This is why when we attain our desires, they bring us only momentary happiness or pleasure, and then we’re right back on the hamster wheel, chasing after our next desire.
To stop desiring what others have, we need to get off the hamster wheel. But to do so, we need to forge a new path in our minds.
Changing how we think
Our predicament is this: we know that the ways we typically compare ourselves to others is self-defeating, yet we do it anyway.
Because it is the habit of the mind.
Aristotle famously expressed the idea, We are what we repeatedly do; excellence therefore is not an act but a habit. Most of us tend to miss the most interesting part of the quote: we are what we repeatedly do. Aristotle understood something about the mind that it would take another two millennia for science to show: that our brains change in response to repetition (see here).
Just as we have made a habit of comparing ourselves to others through repetition, we can create a better habit.
How do we do this?
First, by noticing when our minds tell us that we would be happier if only we had what other people had.
Then, by reminding ourselves that the fulfillment of our desires will not bring us lasting happiness.
Over time, this simple action will produce a profound switch in mindset. But, this isn’t easy. This will take vigilance in noticing when comparing-type thoughts arise, strength when your mind rebels against you, and patience when you think that this isn’t working.
What this takes is mindfulness.
Mindfulness, properly practiced, is a tool — perhaps the most useful tool we have — for exploring the mind. While it doesn’t necessary solve our problems, it does help to illuminate them.
What mindfulness will do for you in this case, is that it will make it easier for you to realize when you’re playing the comparison game and then help to remind you that there is a better game to play.
This will pull your mind away from desiring what other people have, and move your mind toward thinking about what you actually want. And it’s in this space where you are free to choose what you want without being distracted by what everyone else has.
Download an app like Headspace, 10% Happier, or Waking Up and meditate a couple minutes a day. That’s it!
But you need to do the work! You can read a million blog posts about how to improve your life, but if none of them cause you to change what you’re thinking on a regular basis, your life won’t change.
So, get moving! :)