“Comparison is the death of joy.” ~Mark Twain
A few months ago some good friends bought a new house. After several months of remodeling they finally moved in and Thom and I were invited over to see how everything came out. It was stunning, as it should be, because my friend is a designer. Everything, from the floor tile, to the kitchen backsplash, to the custom cabinet doors, was stylish and top–of-the-line. It wasn’t until later when I was back at home that I started asking myself what I should do to spruce up my living room. How would it look if that wall was painted another color, and was it time for a new couch? Fortunately after years of working on staying as conscious as possible, I caught myself. What was most interesting of all was how easily and unconsciously I slipped into comparing my surroundings with my friend’s home. Even though I love my current home and have no intention of making big changes, my unconscious mind slipped into an automatic routine of contrast and comparison. That’s when I realized that the seemingly innocent act of comparing can be a big speed bump on the path to happiness and simple living.
I’ve written many times about how the automatic processes of our brains and how they have evolved to save us time and help us navigate our world in a smooth manner. One way we do that over and over is by comparing. Is that big thing with teeth coming at me going to eat me—or is it just smiling? Is that car in the next lane going to pull in front of me without warning, or was that momentary drift just a mistake? Does that person I’ve just met feel trustworthy enough to spend time with or are they really a sociopath? Our brains automatically evaluate and compare everything coming into our awareness and chances are good we would not be able to function well in everyday life without that ability.
But just like so many other mental processes, the act of comparing often goes unchecked and unconscious. Because of that, those who want to take advantage of us, especially those who want to sell us stuff, can use it against us. The best example of this is how the advertising industry has perfected “photoshopping” as a way to manipulate women into believing that there is something wrong with them if they aren’t young, thin and beautiful. As the website BeautyRedefined.com says, “When women compare themselves to a standard of beautiful, average and healthy that simply doesn’t exist in real life, the battle for healthy body image is already lost. At Beauty Redefined, we’ve termed this phenomenon ‘the normalization of abnormal.’”
Men are vulnerable as well. Not only are they being exposed to body and health images that are unnatural and unobtainable, they are also susceptible to advertising that promotes expensive toys and achievements as the ultimate goal in life. Because our minds automatically seek comparison in relation to our external world as a way of both safety and security, we are all easily manipulated into thinking one gadget or action is better than another. And if we see someone else with anything that catches our eye, we immediately register whether it exists in our world. And depending upon whether we think it will make our lives better, safer, more rewarding, etc.—or not, to that extent will we begin to crave it.
But perhaps even worse than those that want to use our “instinct to compare” against us—is us, using it against ourselves. Similar to the idea of comparison, we have grown up believing that competition is inevitable and is an inalterable part of the human condition—despite the fact that there exists plenty of arguments in favor of how life is extremely cooperative. If we don’t think we can change something—we don’t even try. Some people are under the impression that the only way to motivate themselves is to compare themselves to those who have more—more money, more business, more stuff, more degrees, more—you name it! That drive for more might be triggered by external stimulus, but at some point it becomes an internal trigger that we believe is unchangeable.
So what can we do about it? The way I see it there are four main ways we compare that get us into trouble.
A. We’re unconscious. We are being externally manipulated by advertisers or our culture to desire things that we don’t have—regardless of whether they are truly valuable or even attainable.
B. We aren’t appreciating the “is-ness” of the moment. The second we start wanting things that we don’t have—especially after seeing others have them or being exposed to advertising—we are focusing on what is wrong, or what we lack, rather than what is right and wonderful.
C. As humans we are drawn to things that are easy to measure and quantify. That makes comparison very attractive because it appears so simple. When I compare how many Facebook Friends I have to someone else it is easy. When I tally up my income and compare it to others—it says nothing about the quality, meaning and true richness of my life. The problem is—most things that really matter can’t be measured or quantified!
D. We don’t believe we are good enough to begin with. If we knew, really knew to the core of our being, that we were good enough exactly as we are—then we might notice differences as we compare. But we wouldn’t unconsciously use them to change our behavior (or our mood) in any way whatsoever.
If you agree with me that these four reasons are at the core of why comparison creates roadblocks to our happiness, then what’s next? What can we do to stop using comparison to chase after things that don’t matter and find peace and happiness right where we are? Here are a few things I came up with:
#1 Stop watching advertising. Any woman who reads a magazine and looks at the ads is being manipulated and fooled into believing that particular product can make her look like the model in the ad. A quote I read by Mark Twain said, “It’s easier to fool people than convince them that they have been fooled.” In other words, if you watch advertising you are comparing yourself to something unattainable and then fooling yourself into thinking you can be the one person who will be the exception. Stop it!
If you watch television, stop watching ads. Stop letting your children watch ads as well. According to Dr. Carolyn Coker Ross, “Young people are receiving an estimated 5,260 ‘attractiveness message’ per year from television commercials alone.” Ross goes on to share how a landmark study of teenage girls in Fiji, who after the first three years following the introduction of television in their country, compelled 74% of them to describe themselves as too fat. What we watch and read through the media is affecting our self-image far more than we know.
But remember, it isn’t just body image that is being manipulated by advertisers. Every product is presented in the most exciting, sexy, fun and attractive way so that anyone watching with the slightest interest will be mesmerized. The more exposure, the more we might start believing those images are reflective of the real world. While many adults have a difficult time realizing the manipulation, we can only imagine how young minds are being influenced on a deeper level.
#2 Stay conscious. Work on recognizing that when you are introduced to people and things that are not within your normal experience, you will compare and contrast it with your own. I don’t tend to believe that this automatic behavior is negative in itself—it only becomes problematic when it becomes unconscious. We are all drawn to things we consider attractive and beautiful—but deciding if or when anything should fit into our lives is a much bigger issue than just mere craving.
#3 Focus on the people, things and experiences that you have right now in your life. So much of the negative aspects of comparison come from the focus on what we don’t have, rather than what we do have. If we are constantly looking at what others are doing or have—instead of following our own passions and enjoying the goodness in our lives, we will never be happy.
#4 Realize that most of the time we compare our worst with other people’s best. Or, as Jon Acuff said, “Never compare your beginning to somebody else’s middle.” This happens frequently with my writing. It is so easy to find a piece of writing by another person that blows my socks off. The next step is to compare it to my latest new novel and begin thinking that I could never hope to write something as brilliant. Instead, it is wise when we find something we admire greatly to recognize that we have no idea what it took to get to that point. Most everything looks good from a distance or on the surface, so it is wise to remember that we can never know the cost or the experience that the other person has paid.
#5 Come to an understanding that each and every single one of us is a unique and special part of the whole—and that in itself makes each of us “enough” exactly as we are. I avoid telling anyone what to think or believe on a spiritual or even a psychological perspective, but anyone who doesn’t value their life as an amazing gift might be wise to spend a little time studying the options. Author and cosmologist Brian Swimme, Ph.D. is convinced that the Universe is a radiant, numinous revelation and that, “This is the greatest discovery of the scientific enterprise: You take hydrogen gas, and you leave it alone, and it turns into rosebushes, giraffes and humans.” Got that? What that tells me is that each of us is a miracle without being or doing anything else.
#6 Learn to appreciate things without having to own them. It is a habit to think that we would enjoy something more if we owned it than if we just admire it. In most cases, owning is about ego—admiration is about valuing.
#7 Choose to compare ideals rather than stuff. For example, do you admire a person who is kind and generous—or one that has a pile of money and a bunch of stuff? If our comparison instinct is automatic, make sure you are comparing those things that you value and appreciate rather than what the world says you should want.
#8 Don’t forget that in spite of how easy it is to compare numbers and data that are measurable—most of those things are not what ultimately makes for a happy and peaceful life. The truth is I can’t measure how much I love my husband any more than I can measure how peaceful or healthy I am—but those qualities are the most important ingredients in my life. What about you?
#9 Always remember that everything has a cost. While it’s easy to see something and want it, we must realize that everything we accept in our life is a trade-off for something else. Think you want tons of money, a huge house, great clothes, a sexy car, a best-selling novel, or another husband/wife? Even if those things look attractive in comparison, they all carry a price in terms of time, money, energy or soul value. Each of us must decide if the cost is worth it, but don’t fool yourself into believing there isn’t one before making the trade-off.
After spending some time thinking about how easy it was to slip into the unconscious act of comparing my home with my friend’s house—I brought myself back by sitting down and writing this blog post. Again, not only are the “best things in life not things,” the best things are often the deep feeling of appreciation and gratitude I have for what is right now in my life. Sure we are all bound to compare and contrast everything we see in our world on any given day—but it’s always SMART to come back to the good right here in the now!