They say that the best way to invite misery is comparing yourself with others. And this has become truer with the onset of social media. Many of us find ourselves scrolling Facebook indiscriminately and get depressed after.
Indeed, the urge to make comparisons is strong. Research has shown that more than 10% of our daily thoughts involved making a comparison of some kind. Teddy Roosevelt asserted that “comparison is the thief of joy” and this suggests that making comparisons can be harmful and detract from our happiness.
Specifically, new research suggests that the ways we make comparisons may give us a biased account of our skills and experiences. Sebastian et.al., explored the factors that may underlie FOMO (the “fear of missing out”) and the sense that others have better social lives than we ourselves do.
They found out that people believe that they spend more time alone, go to fewer parties, and are part of fewer social circles than other people, including their close friends. However, this happened in part because people compared themselves to highly visible, highly sociable people; the “social butterflies” of their circles.
Deri and Davidai’s research found that people make similarly biased comparisons in other domains as well. That is, we compare ourselves to the fittest person we know when evaluating how fit we are, say, the best musician when evaluating our musical skills, etc. Of course, this will lead to feeling short of others when we evaluate our own fitness.
Who we compare ourselves to matters. But this is something we can control. When the researchers asked the participants to compare themselves to someone with more moderate abilities, or to a relatively unsocial person, these effects went away.
Hence, when we want to feel better about ourselves, we can make comparisons to people worse off than we are or think of ways that things might have been worse than they are. However, when our goal is to improve ourselves, we compare ourselves to people who are better than we are.
This is especially effective if we compare ourselves to people we feel like we can realistically become; a local band musician first and then a superstar musician.
Yes, comparison can be the thief of joy, but research offers suggestions on how to harness this better. First, we need to adjust accordingly when evaluating ourselves. We may be using an unrealistic target. So, instead of going for the superstar musician outright, we can settle first with a local band. That will eliminate the bias effect.
Second, focus on the ways how you can become like who you are comparing yourself with. If you want to become a better musician, look at what your idol musicians do. Do they take music classes? Do they practice everyday? Do they research? Focus on this and not on how popular they are than you.
If you feel down because of comparisons, learn to think positive thoughts. How much have you improved? What is the worst that can happen to you? Or think of others who look up to you as a role model.
Never let anyone steal your joy. If you need to compare yourself with others, compare thoughtfully.