Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” And, as it turns out, there is a bunch of empirical evidence to back that sentiment up. When we compare ourselves to others, we lose focus on what’s important and fail to give ourselves proper credit. Certainly, social comparison is an innate human tendency, and whether it’s the wisest move or not, it’s a big part of the way we determine our own level of happiness.
In a classic study by Emory University scientist Frans de Waal, capuchin monkeys were trained to use stones as currency to exchange for a cucumber slice. The monkeys were perfectly happy with this arrangement until de Waal started giving some, but not all, of the monkeys a sweet, juicy grape instead of the cucumber.
According to the study, the monkeys who perceived themselves as receiving a lesser deal became visibly upset, refusing to pay for the cucumber or sometimes throwing the slice back in the experimenter’s face. “What this experiment demonstrates,” the authors wrote, “is that our evolutionary ancestors did not evaluate their outcomes in isolation; rather, they evaluated outcomes in a comparative process.”
We compare ourselves to others. We wonder if we make enough dough or whether we should have a better job. We want to keep up with the Joneses. And the social networks exacerbate the problem. In fact, each day Facebook is littered with people presenting their selfies or the perfect family picture as a way to let everyone know how wonderfully his or her life is going.
Instantly, we wonder if we’re measuring up. Our new barometer of happiness has nothing to do with our internal spirit, but everything to do with what we perceive others to think of us.
But are we comparing apples and oranges? Meaning, we don’t realize we may be comparing ourselves at the beginning of a process to someone who is near the end. Or, we can never know what goes on behind the scenes and how people feel. Most likely, they’re comparing themselves to others as well.
So, if comparison is unavoidable, we need to learn to work with it. Rivalries can help us all find a better version of performance, but we must take care in finding a better version of ourselves first. A New York University psychologist named Gavin Kilduff conducted a study where he found that people tend to perform better when their rivals are present, as compared to their performance against random strangers.
Regardless of a little competitive motivation, comparing ourselves to others can be a bummer. Finding a sense of inner joy comes from letting go of our egos and taking pride in the process. In other words, our ability to serve others and to commit to chasing a better version of ourselves each and every day is enriching.
As Matthew McConaughey said in his Oscar acceptance speech several years ago, “My hero is me at 35. You see, every day, and every week, and every month, and every year of my life, my hero is always 10 years away. I’m never going to be my hero. I’m not going to obtain that and that’s fine with me because it keeps me with somebody to keep on chasing.”
Rather than spend our time comparing ourselves to others, we must get to know the “other.” We need to let go of our concerns and discover more about other people. It is cathartic in a way and it frees us up to find that new an improved version of ourselves.
As Eric Hoffer, American moral and social philosopher, stated, “In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”