Why Comparison is the Thief of Joy

Why Comparison Is the Thief of Joy                                                                                         

Mulligans for Life, Partners                                                                                                                                       Great read on possible traps of comparison, by Yuval Atsmon. Published on July 20, 2018  A 2016 and 2017 Linkedin Top Voice; SVP, Advisory Sectors at Globality, Inc.                                                                                            The word teaches in: 2 Corinthians 10:11-13 (NRSVCE)” Let such people understand that what we say by letter when absent, we will also do when present. We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another, and compare themselves with one another, they do not show good sense. 13 We, however, will not boast beyond limits, but will keep within the field that God has assigned to us, to reach out even as far as you.

Live with expectation full of His spirit guiding you!

See ya in God’s Winners Circle

Mulligans for Life/ Morning Line Chapel


Why Comparison Is the Thief of Joy


Thinking businessman choosing between devil or angel

By Yuval Atsmon ,

 I find these six words – “comparison is the thief of joy” – to be incredibly powerful because of how obviously true they are when we reflect on them. So often, we judge our close colleagues through the lens of comparison and unknowingly let it taint our relationships with them.

Why is social comparison so pervasive and inevitable?

Our expectations rapidly change relative to what we see around us, as illustrated by a famous experiment with capuchin monkeys. A monkey who was fed a cucumber went from bliss to rage when he saw a neighbour monkey being fed grapes (which monkeys seem to universally enjoy more). It took virtually no time for the first monkey to demonstrate the innate tendency to completely change its assessment of a situation after observing a peer.                                                                          When people engage in comparison, they are almost always employing what psychologists have termed counterfactual thinking, i.e., how events could have turned out differently. If you’re in a car accident, for example, you may think about how you could have avoided the accident if you weren’t looking at your phone. That is what’s known as upward counterfactual thinking, focused on how the outcome could have been better. But you may also think about what could have happened if the vehicle that hit you was a truck and not a Mini Cooper, which is a downward counterfactual, focused on how the situation could have been worse.

The upward counterfactual is particularly self-defeating. There is a significant volume of research showing how such comparison can spoil an achievement or create rifts between siblings, colleagues and friends. For example:

  • Multiple studies have shown that bronze medallists are significantly happier than silver medallists. Many second-place finishers are engaged in upward counterfactual thinking about how close they were to winning gold. In contrast, third-place finishers compare themselves to all those who missed the podium.
  • In courses where the cut-off to get an A was 90 percent, students who got an 89 were less happy than students who got an 87, even though both groups received a grade of B+.
  • Graduates during a recession reported a much higher level of satisfaction with jobs that one to two years before were disappointing for similar graduates in a stronger economy. The most interesting thing in this research is that even years later, people who entered the workforce in bad economic times were less likely to entertain upward counterfactuals and more likely to feel grateful for their jobs.

Comparisons that most threaten our self-image are to people we’re close to, who are performing better than us, in a domain we care about – according to the social psychology self-evaluation maintenance model. It’s why siblings (especially those close in age) often choose different activities to escape the negative effects of comparison, and different dispositions can make for a more harmonious marriage.

At work, especially when we are successful and rising up in the ranks, it’s hard to avoid comparing ourselves to accomplished colleagues who are skilled in similar domains.

I have written about how comparison can really backfire when you are surrounded by (other) over-achievers and feel insecure as a result. But it doesn’t only rob individuals of their happiness and a fair chance to be successful by their own standards; it also undermines team effectiveness.

Making upward comparisons can evoke feelings of threat, anger and envy. To maintain a positive self-image, we may try to discount the validity of the comparison, looking for reasons to disparage others’ achievements. On the other hand, research shows that when we make downward comparisons, we are prone to reverse distortions, exaggerating the level of our performance or inflating our perception of our domain of achievement.

Social psychologists make a distinction between affective trust (I am willing to be vulnerable with someone because of our emotional bond) and cognitive trust (I am willing to be vulnerable with someone because I believe in her ability and integrity). Research shows that upward comparisons erode affective trust, undermining emotional bonds, and downward comparisons erode cognitive trust, deflating otherwise higher regard.

What can we do about this? 

Here are four suggestions I have been trying to follow as I have become more aware of the negative effects of comparison.

  1. Stay focused. Focus on your own goals and standards. Upward comparison can be very motivating for both individuals and groups. It inspired America to send a man to the moon and helped athletes break seemingly impossible barriers like the four-minute mile. The trouble starts when you work hard and achieve your goal but don’t enjoy it because you’ve shifted your upward comparison further up. Of course, it’s a delicate balance. We naturally take on greater challenges over time but must reflect on how much of the pressure is coming from ourselves.
  2. Be a silent partner in making others successful. When we commit ourselves to making others successful, it nullifies comparisons to them. We can take pride in our contributions, boosting our self-image even when the recognition goes to someone else. We nourish trust with whomever we are helping, and it usually pays dividends in the long run. Michael Lewis’s profile of former NBA player Shane Battier is especially inspiring as to how to be a “no-stats all-star.” However, you won’t stay unsung for long in most professional circumstances, as what goes around comes around.
  3. Stay modest. The more capable and fortunate you are, the likelier it is that you trigger envy in others. When it comes to forging meaningful connections with colleagues, sharing your harder moments can be more valuable than talking about your glorious ones. Everyone can sympathize with how hard it is to travel with kids, for example, but don’t dwell on the fact that the trip was to Hawaii. Be especially wary of humblebrags; don’t complain about paying too much tax or being included in too many awards ceremonies.
  4. Be grateful. Comparison with negative counterfactuals can be very helpful in anchoring our perspective about how fortunate we are. A simple thought exercise can turn an adversity that initially feels devastating into something trivial when compared to the misfortunes of others. We try to teach this to our kids all the time but quickly forget it ourselves – in work and in life.

In a sinister Russian parable, a genie says to a peasant, “I will grant you any wish, but remember that I will give your neighbour twice what I give you.” The peasant thinks for a while and responds, “Poke out one of my eyes.”

In post-communist Russia, after wealth was rapidly and radically redistributed with extreme inequality, many had good reason to be envious and angry. But the corrosive powers of envy were long foretold as the parable shows.

We can save ourselves the proverbial eye by acknowledging how quickly we make ourselves unhappy through comparison – a tendency that has spanned cultures and historic eras. Importantly, talk about this with others who may compare themselves to you and consider how your role modelling can also benefit them.

In the words of Nelson Mandela: Lead from the back and make others believe they are in the front. 


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