We often hear Theodore Roosevelt’s quote “comparison is the thief of joy”. Yet research tells us that making comparisons takes up more than 10% of our daily thoughts. And this makes sense. Comparison and labeling are extremely useful tools for making choices. Leaves of three, let them be. Simple. So if we are on a hike deciding where to step or about to eat a white or yellow berry, comparison is actually really helpful and labeling “good” and “bad” works. However, we’ve taken our use of comparison and labeling and applied it in so many areas of our lives where it doesn’t belong. In many ways we’ve allowed comparison to not only take our joy but also diminish our compassion, a tool that is equally as important to our survival.
Evidence of our tendency to compare ourselves to others dates as far back as ancient philosophers. We often look at our own physical appearance or personal possessions paralleled to those of another and divide ourselves into the “haves” and “have nots”, the “us” and “them”. And although we know that this behavior can be detrimental, we not only continue to use it but spread it further. We compare our partners, parenting skills, our children’s abilities and behaviors, and even eras of our lives. We romanticize the past, dream about the future, and feel dissatisfied with our present. And while this behavior can be temporarily motivating, in the long run research shows us that compassion is a better long term motivator of positive change in our lives. Comparing ourselves to others, which is always done with bias and ignorance, leads to higher levels of depression, lower levels of self-esteem, and often to making poor decisions. It actually takes us farther from our goals.
Making decisions based on our comparative interpretation of someone else’s life is like turning off of the road to follow a car that you like better than yours. It distracts you and takes you off of your own path. It also leads us to false conclusions about others because we don’t really know what is going on with them, we only know what we see. It evolves the “them” into “those people” which is a phrase that I don’t allow in my home. Unless of course the sentence is “Those people want some ice cream” and I am one of “those people” in which case it is cool with me! If attacked by an animal, we may label it vicious. If we notice that the animal is wounded, trapped, or beaten, we exercise more compassion. We still have to protect ourselves, but we no longer compare that animal to our idea of how it should behave because we have more information. When comparing ourselves to others or expecting them to behave in a way that we find appropriate, we do so without all of the facts.
So how do we turn this proclivity toward comparison into a propensity for compassion? Practice. As with anything that does not come naturally at first, practice leads to greater skill and habitual behavior. Renowned psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross said that love and fear are the only two primary emotions. “From love flows happiness, contentment, peace, and joy. From fear comes anger, hate, anxiety, and guilt.” So the next time you are about to criticize yourself or another for being “less than” stop and take a breath. Choose love. Know that you are doing your best and love yourself for it. Realize that others may be trapped and you just can’t see it and send them love. And when you forget and you feed the fear, choose love the next time. Practice love. It may not make you perfect, but it’s sure to make you happier.
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Corpus, J.H., Ogle, C.M. & Love-Geiger, K.E. The Effects of Social-Comparison Versus Mastery Praise on Children’s Intrinsic Motivation. Motiv Emot 30, 333–343 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-006-9039-4
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Haith, A., Krakauer, J. (2018). The multiple effects of practice: skill, habit and reduced cognitive load. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 20, 196-201. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2018.01.015
Suls, J., Wheeler, L. (2000) Handbook of Social Comparison Theory and Research. Kluwer Academic. DOI https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4615-4237-7
Summerville, A., & Roese, N. J. (2008). Dare to Compare: Fact-Based versus Simulation-Based Comparison in Daily Life. Journal of experimental social psychology, 44(3), 664–671. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2007.04.002
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