It’s said that comparison is the thief of joy.
We compare ourselves not only to others but also to fictionalised past and possible future versions of ourselves.
If the current self doesn’t measure up, we become despondent.
After all, our brains are comparison computers, crunching numbers to solve daily expectation equations.
Sense of lack
By why compare? Mainly due to a sense of lack.
Most of us, due to myriad childhood traumas, feel like we aren’t enough.
Much of our behaviour becomes scarcity driven as we compensate for an unquenchable thirst or unfillable void.
Rather than address the internal pain, we seek external solutions to finally provide the peace we crave.
In attempting to remedy such existential angst, our problem solving begins with comparison, where we imagine a series of alternate scenarios to pick a preferred option.
Take a restaurant for example.
We imagine how we would feel eating a burger versus a streak, comparing the potential satisfaction of one against the other.
The process, like any decision, involves a mixture of logic and emotion, driving our responses.
Unfortunately, emotion often wins out, making our comparison machine fallible and our final decisions suboptimal.
Research shows, for example, that when people are asked about increasing their salary, they do so in response to their neighbours, as opposed to the option which would actually put more money in their pocket.
Comparing is a form of imagination which can be extremely useful or harmful, depending on how it’s used.
It’s not hard to compare between a potential future of being a homeless drug addict and being a happy, successful person.
In such stark cases, we decide to behave in ways which increase the likelihood of the preferred outcome.
However, it’s when comparison becomes a constant mental companion that problems emerge, magnifying the gap between where we are now and where we want to be.
Comparison, in this way, might be considered the currency of desire and the root of much suffering.
Capitalistic culture thrives on exploiting this psychological tendency, as marketers emphasise the pain of your present situation versus the potential pleasure that awaits if you’d only buy their product, powering the hedonic treadmill.
Compare that (pun intended) to our evolution in small bands of hunter-gatherers.
You might measure your hunting skills against the leader of the pack and modify your tactics accordingly, but aside from status rivalries born of survival, presumably these individuals were better able to inhabit their present reality.
Now our tribe sizes have expanded far beyond the magical number of 150 to villages, towns and sprawling cities, our exposure to someone subjectively better off is unavoidable.
Add to that the infinite digital landscape and the perfect conditions for for unremitting comparison are created.
In fact, this is one of the oft-cited reasons for social media-driven angst…
As newsfeed friends increasingly image craft by sharing exaggerated versions of their existence, we downplay our own quotidian routines, frequently resulting in dismay and depression.
It’s vital to remember that while comparing can be a useful tool for decision making, its powers only stretch so far.
If you’re stuck either imagining how your life could be or measuring yourself against others, remember that you’re treading your own path.
Often remaining present is our best bet to signal potential mind wandering.
Comparison is a useful tool to deploy intermittently during weekly or monthly reviews, analysing our current situation and any activity modifications we must implement.
But like any psychological techniques, it should be used in moderation, not to disparage our day-to-day lives, but rather to inform our future trajectory.