The comparison trap


3rd Nov 2009

by Marcus Loane


 Sometimes discontent and unhappiness is caused by comparing yourself to other people who are perceived as being more fortunate than you are. This is a very natural thing to do. However it is not helpful and it is best not to compare yourself to others. Even if you are a high achiever, there will always be someone better off, more successful, more accomplished, richer, better looking, more powerful. It is also worth noting that not everyone who appears to be better off necessarily is happier. You do not know what hidden problems they may have.
 Comparison is a very human trait and studies have shown that people are happier when they are doing slightly better than their peers. There could be evolutionary reasons for this as status (strength, intelligence, health, ability to acquire resources etc) was important for getting the best mates in our ancestors so we have an in built drive to want to increase our social status. The drive is still there even if we have already acquired a mate and had our children. Most of us do not realise that it is a basic human drive probably put there by the evolutionary process. Why is it better to have more possessions and power, and status in the community? It is often assumed that it is obviously better, but why is it better? It feels better because of the evolutionary drive within us and understanding that can put it in perspective. It does not mean it is a bad thing or a good thing but now that we know why acquiring status feels good we can realise that it is less important, less of a necessity and certainly should not be the cause of anxiety or negative feelings.

 The habit of comparison can be a trap. A different perspective can protect you from this. Most of the time,


what other people are doing with their lives
makes little difference to how you spend yours


so it should have no effect on you. If you must think about more successful people you can be happy for them and interested in the psychology which got them there, and wonder are they satisfied or are they being envious of others more successful than they are. Even if you climb the status ladder all the way to the top and get to be a president then you probably end up comparing yourself to other presidents past and present and wondering how you will look beside them in the history books, the same goes for academics, business persons, celebrity musicians and actors - there is no end to comparison and “status anxiety”.

 If you insist on comparing yourself with others then compare yourself with those less fortunate than yourself or better still, compare yourself to yourself in the past. This is the healthiest type of comparison because it encourages development and growth and satisfaction that is unrelated to what other people are doing.

 Another harmful type of comparison is comparing your life to some imagined "perfect life" where you think if only I could just fix this flaw here and that flaw there, then my life would be perfect. Some things can be fixed by being creative and flexible but often there will be others that cannot be remedied so this is unhelpful and will make you feel that your life is always falling short of some imagined ideal. It is better to see your life as a glass half full or nine tenths full rather than dwelling on what is deemed as wrong or lacking.


"It could be worse" is always true.


 If you have real problems (let us call them challenges) in your life then you could benefit by comparing yourself to those with more difficult challenges, and you can be sure that there will be many who are much worse off than yourself. "It could be worse" is always true. Sometimes it takes a little effort to see that but it is always the case. You may not believe me. Take the example of a man with advanced motor neurone disease who is now completely disabled and unlikely to live more than a few months. How could it be worse than that? It could be worse. This man had a full active life in his earlier years and had some happy experiences in his life. He knew what it was like to be in love and he has those fond memories. There will be others in the world with his particular malady and dire prognosis who did not have the earlier happier life or who are younger than he is with only a few weeks to live, so they are worse off than he is. "It could be worse" is always true.


Comparison can make us discontented

or it can make us grateful

depending on where we direct it.




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