The Comparison Trap
"Comparison is the death of joy." (Mark Twain)
I was just listening to an interview on NPR. It was a replay of Fresh Air host Terry Gross' conversation with the late writer David Foster Wallace. He was such a brilliant thinker, such a strong voice for my generation, but he ended his own life in 2008. He was 46 years old when he hanged himself. He had so much energy, so much curiosity, so much virtuosity. His writing had a playful quality, a silliness. And yet his life was marked by sadness, heartbreak, and, in the end, despair.
One of the themes I heard in their conversation was just how devastating it is to compare oneself with others. Wallace spoke of turning 30 years old and having so much more than his parents had when they were that age, but he and his peers were all miserable. They had so much education, affluence, health care, success. And yet they were all fearful, unfulfilled, self-sabotaging, and sad.
Part of what made it worse is that the more time they spent comparing themselves with their parents, the worse they felt about themselves and their seeming inability to find happiness.
Wallace also wrote about vacationing and how difficult it is to find and accept pleasure. He says people generally spend a significant amount of time while on vacation wondering if they chose wisely. Should we have gone to this resort? Do you think the people at that other resort -- the one we almost went to -- are having a better time than we are?
Conventional wisdom tells us that the path to happiness requires us to stop this kind of comparison. Of course, conventional wisdom isn't always realistic. You can try all you want to avoid the comparison trap, but when your neighbor pulls into their driveway in a brand new Mercedes or your sister-in-law brags about the time they decided to spend the entire month of July at their new beach house, you'll probably find yourself wondering why you're like you and not more like them.
Discontent is part of the human condition -- the nagging sense that you're missing out on something. This is true even when you seem to have it all. And it's not always a bad thing. We're constantly growing, evolving, and looking for new ways to amplify our impact on the world, new ways to expand our horizons. Pursuing more isn't always wrong, and comparing yourself to others can be harmless if it allows you to learn from them.
If you compare yourself to someone you admire greatly and it motivates you to work smarter or be more innovative, that comparison improves your life for the better. If you compare yourself to someone you admire and it prompts you to volunteer or do something charitable, that comparison doesn't just change your life, it changes the world.
It's when the comparison thing bums you out or stifles your creativity in some way -- that's when you need to rethink things.
- When you sit around complaining that someone else gets all the breaks instead of working harder to create your own luck -- that's a problem.
- When you feel paralyzed because you haven't made nearly as much progress as someone else -- that's a problem.
- When you become convinced that something is wrong with you for not having, achieving, or being like someone else -- that's a problem.
- When you begin competing with someone else for the approval of others -- that's a problem.
- When you think you should "have it all" instead of focusing on what you actually want (and then coming up with a plan to get it) -- that's a problem.
Comparing can be positive if it spurs you onto greater heights. Comparing that turns into complaining is worthless.
The truth is there will always be someone smarter, stronger, healthier, wealthier, more successful, and more attractive than you. On the other hand, there will always be someone out there who wishes they were as smart, strong, healthy, wealthy, successful, and attractive as you.
Your potential, your advantages, your opportunities (or lack thereof) -- none of that guarantees happiness. And that's what you're really after, isn't it? We all want to find our bliss. So go find it. Stop looking sideways to find things to complain about; look in, look up, and then look forward.
Avoid the comparison trap, and go get what you want.