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„Comparison is the thief of joy” – or: how you can stop making yourself unhappy - Part I

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

Comparing ourselves with others is a pretty natural thing. Often this comparison makes us unhappy, though. Luckily, there's ways to change this.

Comparing ourselves with others is a pretty natural thing. Yet, we tend to compare in ways that are unfavourable for us, literally making ourselves unhappy. The fact that it’s normal to engage in “deflating” comparison does not mean that you have to succumb to it. Instead, there’s some good advice on how you can reduce the negative effect on your self-esteem and happiness. In this post, I share with you my own experience with comparison and how I’ve chosen to limit it.

The title of this post is a quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, US president in the early 20th century. The quote seems to capture something important about how social comparison affects us negatively. In particular in the age of social media and the omnipresence of carefully curated self-presentation, it’s worthwhile to look into this.

For me, comparison is something quite ubiquitous. And so is feeling bad about myself. Whenever I look at social media, I'm in for comparison stealing some joy of mine.

What first got me interested in the topic of social comparison was my own experience. Seeing my breathwork colleagues’ social media self-presentation regularly threw me into a downward spiral of comparison. Whenever I looked at Facebook or Instagram and saw what other breathwork facilitators were up to, I felt a pang of envy and aguish in my belly. “Look at so and so! She’s doing a weekend retreat.” “And so and so, who did the training with me, is offering a 4-week course and also this other fancy-looking event.” “And breathworker Y has been facilitating for thousands of people even though he never even did a facilitator training.” “And wow, look at X, how is she able to pull off all that cool work and at the same time be super slim and attractive and always spend time surfing and travelling and partying in all these awesome locations?!” And off went the train to self-criticism land: “Why don’t I have that many attendants in my sessions? Why don’t I have a course going already? Why haven’t I hosted a retreat yet? Why don’t I have that much fun? And why don’t I look that good?!” You see, the options for self-deflating comparison are endless...

As sad as this behaviour and chain of thoughts and feelings is, it also made me curious. So I started on a little journey of exploring my own comparing behaviour and at the same time understanding what about it might be universal.

What do I actually know about these people I am unfavourably comparing myself to?

A first step of this inquiry included sitting down with a calm heart and an analytical mind, looking at the facts. I asked myself: what do I actually know about these people I am unfavourably comparing myself to? Very little, it turned out.

For one, in most cases I do not know how many people have shown up to the events advertised. In the few cases where I do know how friends' and colleagues events turned out, my own results don’t look too bad anymore. I had had the fantasy of every other breathworker's event always being filled to the brim, while I sometimes found myself facilitating for very small groups. But in reality, I have seen with my own eyes and heard that my colleagues, too, at times (e.g. summer time) struggle with low attendance. This seemed particularly true for the first two years after having launched a business.

I also had to realise that I didn't know anything about my colleague's focus and investment. One time I learned that someone whose online events I look at with jealousy, was not at all working with one-on-one clients while for me this takes up a large chunk of my time and energy and was a major focus of my work and my additional training. These examples illustrate that there was a huge difference between how I constructed comparison in my own mind and what other people's reality was. This applied in particular as long as my main source of "information" about others was social media. The clouds of negative comparison dispelled once I started to actually talk to people and take into account their real-life experiences as well as my own.

We tend to compare to the top runners of a field. Not the guy who works in the lab next door but Marie Curie.

My exploration of my comparing behaviour also helped me realise: I tend to ignore context in my comparisons. This, too, is a common feature of negative comparison. Instead of keeping in mind that everyone has their very own trajectory, with a different starting point, a different speed, different handicaps, I assumed that we all were running the same race with the same chances. (Neoliberal myth, anyone?). In my self-comparison in the field of breathwork, I had not taken into account that some of my fellow trainees had already spent years working as yoga teachers, coaches, bodyworkers or therapists, already having a network of clients and experience in marketing themselves. Also, many of them were already part of networks and milieus that are interested in alternative health and wellness practices, i.e. they had long before found their “tribe”. I on the other hand mostly had networks in academia, a - when it comes to breathwork, shamanism, and even therapy – at times rather close-minded community (no offence, fellas :D).

My comparison was deeply flawed in several ways: I compared based on very little or misleading information. I compared selectively, over-emphasising facts and occasions that made me look bad, ignoring cases where comparison would have been in my favour. I also expected myself to come out top of a group irrespective of when and where I had started. It turned out, that this, too, is typical for the comparison that makes us unhappy: we tend to compare to the top runners of a field. Not the guy who works in the lab next door but Marie Curie.

Does any of this sound familiar to you at all? The funny thing is: all of that seems to be pretty normal, common behaviour - at least for humans. Once I started looking into research about comparison, I noticed that I am not alone.

Research about comparison paints a pretty interesting picture

It turns out: humans compare themselves all the time. Allegedly research found out that “10 per cent of our thoughts involve comparison of some kind” (Psychology Today). 10 percent ?!?! In psychology, a whole theory and branch of research has developed around the topic of “social comparison”. Like almost anything we do, comparison, too, at some point was adaptive and had a survival function (Morina 2021; Carter 2022). Comparison has important functions for and effects on our self-construct. On the good side, comparison can serve to motivate you and to assess situations correctly. On the downside, though, it can reduce your self-esteem and happiness.

Psychological research shows that here’s a tendency to compare upwards rather than downwards (see Davidai & Deri 2019 for an overview). In particular, we tend to compare ourselves with those people whom we consider the best in a given domain. This type of biased comparison leads – surprise, surprise – to us feeling bad. To put it in the words of Gerber et al. (2018): when you engage in upward comparison the “most likely result is self-deflating contrast“. Research has shown this self-deflating effect in a large number of different fields of comparison (see Davidai & Deri (2019: p.583) and I bet you know it from your own life, too. So while the fact that we compare ourselves to people who (seem to) perform extraordinarily well in the respective area might not be uplifting, it at least is normal. Indeed, as you might know from your own experience, it's not even intentional.

Comparing yourself unfavourably is not a conscious act. Yet.

We don’t purposefully compare ourselves to high performers, it’s automatic (Davidai & Deri 2019). We do so simply because when we think about self-evaluation, these high performers come most easily to mind. So what drives us is not an unconscious need to make ourselves bad, it’s just that people who perform outstandingly are mentally most available (they are more "salient", to use a term from cognitive psychology).

No one, not even the rich and famous, seems to be spared: Davidai and Deri point out that even people who in the public eye already are “on the top” like to compare themselves unfavourably to people who they consider still better. “Even the most competent people can come to think of themselves as failures or 'imposters' because of the high bar they set for themselves“ (Davidai and Deri, 2019). So it appears that however crippling, the imposter syndrome is at least egalitarian.

Social Media makes deflating comparison easier and confirms our biases

One of the effects of social media might be that we have more examples of excellent performers available to compare ourselves with. Plus: on social media, people present a carefully curated version of themselves and their lives, meaning we’re also more likely to see only excellent performance documented. This coincides with another judgment bias we have: we tend to overestimate others’ happiness and to underestimate their negative emotions (Jordan et al. 2011, Brooks 2020). While the overall effect of social media on people’s happiness and well-being is naturally a complex one, there’s evidence pointing to social media exacerbating the negative effects of comparison. To cite two examples: research shows that social media increases career frustration – while casually talking to real people decreases it! (Fukubayashi & Fuji 2021). Catharin et al. (2000) found that women viewing media images of bodies that correspond to contemporary standards for beauty experienced a negative effect on their own body image. And who knows, maybe your own experience, too, has long confirmed the hypothesis that social media enhances negative comparison of yourself?

Overall, the negative effects comparison can have on our self-image and our wellbeing are clear....but where do we go from there? Is there anything we can practically do in our own life to reduce the negative impact of comparison?

The good news is: The fact that it’s automatic doesn’t mean you can’t change it

Social comparison is a cognitive operation that we engage in. And hence – simply put – we can also choose to not engage in it (Fujita 2008: 241). There is a number of ways in which you can make this process easier for you. I offer six concrete steps in part II of this post.


Brooks Arthur (2020) “Thief of Joy”,

Carter, Kristen A. (2022) Are Your Goals Making You Miserable? Our health and fitness goals often involve comparing ourselves to others.

Cattarin, Jill A.; Thompson, Joel K.; Thomas, Carmen M.; and Williams, Robyn, "Body Image, Mood, and Televised Images of Attractiveness: The Role of Social Comparison" (2000). Psychology Faculty Publications. 2156.

Davidai, S., & Deri, S. (2019). The second pugilist’s plight: Why people believe they are above average but are not especially happy about it. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(3), 570–587.

Duckworth, Angela (2022) Comapring Me to Me, in Psychology Today,

Gerber, J. P., Wheeler, L., & Suls, J. (2018). A social comparison theory meta-analysis 60+ years on. Psychological Bulletin, 144(2), 177–197.

Jordan, A. H.; Monin, B.; Dweck, C. S.; Lovett, B. J.; John, O. P.; Gross, J. J. (2011). Misery Has More Company Than People Think: Underestimating the Prevalence of Others' Negative Emotions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(1), 120–135.doi:10.1177/0146167210390822

Macmillan, Amanda. 2017. Why Instagram Is the Worst Social Media for Mental Health

Psychology Today, (n.a.), Social Comparison Theory, in Pscyhology Today,

Morina N. Comparisons Inform Me Who I Am: A General Comparative-Processing Model of Self-Perception. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2021;16(6):1281-1299. doi:10.1177/1745691620966788

Scott, Elizabeth (2020) The Stress of Social Comparison,

Summerville, Amy (2019) Is Comparison Really the Thief of Joy?, in Psychology Today,

Thompson, Nicholas. 2019. Tristan Harris: Tech Is ‘Downgrading Humans.’ It’s Time to Fight Back

Tiffany, Kaitlyn. 2019. How to quit Facebook without quitting Facebook


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