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Six steps to comparing less and being happier - PART II of „Comparison is the thief of joy”

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

Here are six steps to change your comparing pattern. While comparing ourselves with others is a pretty natural thing, it doesn't mean you have to continue doing it.

As you could see in Part I of this article, comparing ourselves unfavourably is a pretty common human behaviour that usually happens unconsciously. (If you haven't read Part I, yet, you can find it here.) Other than many people think, however, "common" and "unconscious" does not mean you cannot change it. Quite the opposite, actually!


Step 1: Become aware

By understanding and getting to know ourselves and our patterns, we create an opening for change. With determination and persistence, humans are able to alter many of their unconscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Bringing awareness to hitherto unconscious patterns, is the first step. By reading the first part of the article, you have already created some awareness. Let's now move on from there.

Step 2: Reflect

After you've read how I, the writer, have been affected by comparison and how this relates to humans in general, I invite you to check: how does what you have read apply to yourself?


To deepen your process of self-reflection, it's usually helpful to write about it. (Writing clarifies our thinking and often has an effect that goes beyond just thinking about sth.) Here are four basic questions that you could use as journaling prompts:

  1. What role does comparing myself to others play in my life?

  2. When do I compare myself to others? (I compare myself to others when I ... )

  3. In which areas do I often compare myself to others?

  4. If I bring my attention back to myself: how satisfied am I currently in this area?

  5. If I compare my current situation in this area with myself two years ago, what do I notice?

When you write about these questions, approach the topic with curiosity and allow yourself to be open and surprised. Usually a meditative mood, a calm setting and plenty of time support the process.


Step 3: Observe


Besides reflecting in hindsight, it’s also helpful to observe comparisons as they happen, in real time. In this vein, I invite you, for the rest of today and the next two days, to observe and notice when and how you engage in comparison. Catch yourself when you are comparing yourself with someone else. Assess the direction of the comparison and notice how it makes you feel. Also ask yourself why you initiated the comparison in the first place.


Besides increasing understanding and awareness, there’s a couple of other measures I have found useful for myself. I will share these with you, too, so you can see which approaches might be helpful for you, too.


Step 3: Put some facts and context into the equation

As shown in Part I, my negative comparison often doesn't stand once I consider the facts and people's individual paths. So now, when I manage to notice myself while engaging in negative comparison, I first bring in some facts, by asking: what do I actually know? (Quite often, the answer is: very little! Which is usually a good incentive to just move on and let my mind settle on something else.) As mentioned earlier: in particular social media presents us with carefully curated highlights. Usually we do not know what is behind these images.

Then, I consciously bring some context back in: i.e. I zoom out and take into account the whole picture of my own path and that other person’s path (as much as I know it). I can then begin seeing where we started from and what might be reasons for them to (seemingly) be more advanced. This often produces interesting results because a) it can very practically teach me something about what factors matter in a certain field of activity, b) it shows me just HOW UNIQUE and ultimately non-comparable every person's trajectory is, and c) very often, it reminds me of how far I have come myself.


Step 4: Compare yourself to yourself


This latter aspect is crucial. In the end, everyone’s path and life are different. We’re born with different dispositions, we grow up in different circumstances, we experience different things and the same things differently throughout our lives. Hence, the only person to whom you can meaningfully compare yourself is yourself. Ask: where was I five years ago? If I compare myself to my much younger self, what have I learned and how have I grown?

In other words, we have to “shift our focus to setting and achieving personal records“ (Duckworth 2022).

I began writing this post in May 2022. (Yes, it's been a longterm project :D). Doing the research for it has really helped me shift my patterns around comparison. Bringing more attention back to myself and comparing my current situation to a) my past and b) my aspirations has not only been NOT depressing but has actually been very helpful. Each time I do that, I notice how far I have come and how many things have changed and developed in a positive way over the past years and the course of my life. At the same time, such self-directed comparison also makes me aware of where there is still room for improvement. So it's a good compass. Comparing myself to my aspirations provides an opportunity to remember what I really want and it inspires me to go for it. It sometimes reminds me that I am actually not sharing the same goals and aspirations as the person I was comparing myself to. On occasion, though, it makes me aware of where I need to update my goals and aspirations because they don't fit anymore. All of these - motivation, clarity and course correction - are pretty welcome because they help me find and advance on my individual path.

Step 5: Curtail and direct your social media use

Social media has definitely made comparison easier and more skewed. Pretty much whenever you open one of your apps, there is another occasion for comparing yourself to the idealised self-portrayal of another. There is pretty good reasons for quitting social media altogether. (If you want to know some of them, check out this entertaining and thought-provoking TED Talk by Cal Newport.)

But for now, let me share with you how I have been limiting and directing my own use:

For one, I have been trying to limit my use of social media in terms of time and frequency (sometimes more, sometimes less successfully, to be honest). Really helpful was to mute certain profiles. In particular, I have muted many of the people who do very similar things professionally. I want to be in connection with them, yes, but I also do not want to feed my social comparison drive unnecessarily. This advice actually came from a breathworker colleague, and I found it to be a good one that can easily be implemented. In general, I have also started to ask myself: does the type of content I'm seeing right now make me happy or inspire me, does it contribute to my growth or well-being? If it doesn't, there's a high chance, I will unfollow or mute. While there is a lot more to truly mastering social media and technologies in a way that advances my well-being, these have already been helpful steps to reduce the amount of devaluing comparison I engage in.


As said: this has been a longterm project. Since May 2022, when I began reading and writing, a whole lot has changed in my behaviour and I feel much less affected by the deflating effects of comparison. I am very curious to hear about your own journey! What thoughts and realisations have been inspired by reading this article? Are you using some or all of the steps? How did the journalling go? Is there anything I missed in my article? If you want to let me know about any of these, feel free to contact me.


And now: good luck in gaining mastery over your comparing behaviour!



Sources:


Brooks Arthur (2020) “Thief of Joy”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9D64pEkQHc


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. https://digitalcommons.usf.edu/psy_facpub/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. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000580

Duckworth, Angela (2022) Comapring Me to Me, in Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/actionable-advice-help-kids-thrive/202205/comparing-me-me


Gerber, J. P., Wheeler, L., & Suls, J. (2018). A social comparison theory meta-analysis 60+ years on. Psychological Bulletin, 144(2), 177–197. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000127


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

https://time.com/4793331/instagram-social-media-mental-health/

Psychology Today, (n.a.), Social Comparison Theory, in Pscyhology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/social-comparison-theory#the-dangers-of-comparison


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, https://www.verywellmind.com/the-stress-of-social-comparison-4154076


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

https://www.wired.com/story/tristan-harris-tech-is-downgrading-humans-time-to-fight-back/

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



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