Think about five things you want (material goods or otherwise) that you don’t yet have; how do they make you feel? Are you excited about going on the journey to acquire them, or do you feel bad seeing other people with them because you don’t have them yet?
You’re not alone if it’s the latter more often than the former. Many of us experience negative feelings about the things we don’t yet have that others do. This inspired the quote “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Often when we want something, we compare ourselves to others who already have what we want, which causes us to fall into impatience, wanting, and jealousy.
The quote “comparison is the thief of joy” is attributed to Theodore Roosevelt – a man with plenty of wise words to share. The quote means that when we compare our lives to the lives of others, all the joy can be sapped out of our own. Comparing ourselves and our lives to others encourages us to see what we lack.
Comparing our lives to others is now known as comparisonitis, which describes the sadness and frustration we can feel when we compare to an illness. Most of us have caught comparisonitis at one time or another, especially when browsing social media.
Why Is Comparison the Thief of Joy?
So, why is it wrong to compare ourselves to others? Comparing ourselves to others often has negative implications. Here are 5 reasons why:
- Comparison isn’t favorable: We rarely compare ourselves to others to congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come; we usually use that knowledge to beat ourselves up about how we aren’t yet enough. We see all the ways we aren’t progressing fast enough, the opportunities we may have missed, the decisions we could have made better, and all the things we should do to get that thing that another person has.
- We “should” all over ourselves: Comparison makes us analyze ourselves and our lives through the lens of what we should be, do or have. Recently, therapists have termed this “should-ing all over ourselves” because shoulds are a source of unhappiness.
Think about it – can you think of a time when you used the word should in a positive context? We almost exclusively use this word when we feel inadequate. For example:
- I should have gotten that promotion
- I should already be married
- I should have a bigger house
- I should have a better car
- I should clean my house
We only use the word should when we’re comparing ourselves to a vision of ourselves we’re not living up to. It’s perfectionism (I should be able to have a job, kids, partner, cook healthy meals, workout every day, and keep an immaculate home) and response to comparisonitis (I should be able to do all these things because [person you admire or feel in competition with] does it all and more!).
- It asks us to be more than we can be: Feelings of depression and anxiety come when we’re focused on things outside our present. When we compare our lives to what we perceive others’ lives to be, we see all the things we aren’t or don’t have. Other people seem to be able to be, do, and have all the things we want, and suddenly we’re more aware of all the things we’re lacking in our lives. We compare our real lives to our interpretation of their life, and we feel like we should be someone entirely different to be good enough to have the things we want. No joy can come from not feeling good enough.
- It makes us feel like we’re the only ones struggling: When we compare our lives to others, we can only compare what we see their lives as. If we’re comparing ourselves to others on social media, that means we’re comparing ourselves to an idea of their lives we got from an image, post, or short video; in other words, we’re comparing our entire lives to a snapshot of theirs.
We don’t see the debt they may have, the dysfunctional relationships they have with others in the family, dissatisfaction at work, or the trials and tribulations they’re going through. We all have crosses to bear, but very few of us are willing to talk openly about them, even with our friends. When we share life’s difficulties, we also present them in a way that makes us feel better about them.
You simply can’t compare your life accurately to another’s because you can’t know what they’re going through or have been through in the past. Your journey is your own.
- It makes us want more, more, more: Imagine you’re pulling out of your driveway when you see that your neighbor across the street pulls up to their house in your dream car. It’s beautiful, brand new, and to your exact specifications. They wave to you and point at the car, “My new car!”
You smile and wave and then pull away, burning with jealousy. Why have they got what you want? How did they get it? You look around at your car and notice all the things you don’t like about it that you appreciated the day before. Suddenly, you’re not satisfied with what you’ve got.
This is a trap we can easily fall into when it comes to material things because we can easily see what others have and what we think it takes for them to get that thing. It takes the joy out of the things we already have and make us feel dissatisfied with all we’ve achieved.
It’s easy in our modern world to think about what others have because we can see what they have just by opening a social media app. A short 5-minute wait for a dentist appointment can turn into 5 minutes of comparisonitis while you scroll through other people’s best moments.
So, how do we avoid comparisonitis when it’s such an easy trap to fall into?
Avoid Comparison and Live with More Joy
You can’t wholly avoid comparing yourself to others, but there certainly are ways to limit its effect on your life so you can live with more joy. Here are some of the best ways to avoid comparing yourself to others negatively:
- Get clear on what you really want out of life: Open a notebook or Google Doc and clear all ideas of what you “should” want or what other people say you should want out of your life from your mind. Then make notes answering the following questions about what you would do with your life if you could do whatever you wanted:
- Where would I live?
- What would I do for work?
- How would I spend my time?
- Who would I spend my time with?
When you get clear on a vision for your life that feels good and exciting to you, you’ll be less likely to feel jealous of others.
- Consider your expectations: List all the things you should be, do, or have and consider where that expectation came from. If it’s anything but a healthy expectation for yourself (i.e., I should be a loving mother or father), try to let it go. It may be that it came from societal pressures, the desires of someone close to you, or old expectations you had for yourself.
- Remove people on social media that trigger comparison: Are there certain people you follow online whose content always makes you feel bad about yourself? If so, unfollow them for now, even if you like them. You can always follow them in the future when you think from a more positive place.
- Practice gratitude: Studies have found that people who regularly practice gratitude are far happier than those who don’t. Practicing gratitude includes giving thanks, praying, and even just saying thank you silently in your head, but an easy way to practice gratitude is to write down three things you’re grateful for each day. This short list will help you bring more awareness to the things you already have and love in your life.
- Make a list of your accomplishments: We tend to recalibrate and see ourselves as being at the beginning of our journey, even when we’re not. Take some time to sit and reflect on all your accomplishments thus far to remind yourself how far you’ve come, even if you’re not yet where you want to be.
- Sit down and make a plan: It’s much easier to look at what other people are doing with detachment when you feel like you’re making progress and know where you’re headed. When you’re clear on what you want, plan at least one step you can take to move closer to your goals and try to take it within the next week. This is especially important if you’ve got big goals but have felt stuck for some time.
Take Your Joy Back
You’ll never be able to stop comparing yourself to others entirely – it’s only natural to see what others have and think, “I want that too.” But try to notice when you’re thinking negative thoughts about yourself instead of excitement for the future. When you’re feeling negative, remember the quote, “comparison is the thief of joy,” do one of the exercises in the section above, and do something you enjoy. You’ll soon feel in a better headspace.
Theresa Bedford is a syndicated freelance home and travel writer with regular contributions to the Associated Press wire and MSN. She helps everyday people love the life they have through simplicity, organization, and prioritization.