Being social animals, humans instinctively compare ourselves to others. To varying degrees, we all compare different aspects of our lives: status, money in the bank, physical appearance, success, luck, intelligence.
“Comparison is the death of joy,” wrote Mark Twain. He was onto something.
No one wins when comparison is instinctive, unconscious, and instigated by the ego. Looking at people in this way builds barriers, creates a sense of separation, and makes us view others as competition.
If you perceive someone as “better,” then you’re not good enough. If you perceive someone as “worse,” you puff up your ego, creating a fragile and insatiable feeling of superiority.
In social science these two forms of comparison are callled “relative deprivation” and “relative gratification.” Neither approach is the right one. Depending on where we look, we will always find evidence for both extremes. The world is full of those with more, and those with less.
Forming an identity around any area of our lives — through a sense of deprivation or gratification — sends us down the path of believing our worth is inherently linked to these qualities. It’s a vicious cycle, focusing on the external and hindering personal growth.
However, Twain wasn’t completely right. Comparison doesn’t have to be the death of joy. It can be a powerful motivator, when you consciously use it as a tool for self-improvement.
Call this skilled comparison, if you will — it’s a way of looking at others with a heart-centred approach, stripped of emotional reaction, and full of intent to learn and grow.
Let’s look at positive ways to use comparison to motivate you:
Turning deprivation to aspiration
A number of unskilled emotions arise in response to the mindset of “relative deprivation” — towards both yourself and the object of comparison.
Our feelings of jealousy, anger, envy, and resentment are aimed outwards, while our frustration, sadness, impatience, and doubt are aimed inwards. The former creates bitterness and blame. The latter lowers confidence and creates the belief we’ll never achieve what this person has achieved.
Transforming this instinct into skilled comparison requires an assessment of the core reasons behind discontent. For example, envy generally reflects what you perceive yourself to lack. If you’re envious of a friend’s success, reflect instead on where you feel you lack success. If you feel envious of someone’s creativity, reflect on ways to better express your own unique creative impulse.
Turning envy into inspiration
There are a few steps to this part of the process. The first is bringing conscious awareness to the comparison trap, Pay attention to your feelings of envy and corresponding thought patterns, as they arise. After the reflections mentioned above, consider ways comparison can inspire you instead.
Don’t be surprised if during this process you discover unexpected admiration. For example, you may realize that you admire your friend’s ability to take the necessary risks to become successful, or their associated self-confidence. This leaves you with two tangible goals — setting the intention to take more risks, and committing to improving your self-confidence.
From gratification to gratitude
“Relative gratification” is a precursor to “relative deprivation” because the illusion of superiority over others gives you a fleeting sense of satisfaction. If your sense of separation, superiority, and pride is indulged when you are compared favorably to others, you can guarantee the opposite is true when the tables turn.
For example, let’s say you take pride in being better looking than someone else. What happens when someone enters the room whom you perceive is better looking than you?
You guessed it: a change in perspective instantly triggers the relative deprivation scenario. Apply this scenario to being more intelligent, or richer, or more physically fit. The results are the same. This deceptive ego trick always leads down the same, never-ending, futile path.
Undeniably, there are people in this world with less than you, but you have a great opportunity to use your awareness of this fact to act with heart and compassion, rather than to enhance your ego. Reflecting how you are privileged is a gateway to cultivating genuine gratitude and appreciation for your life situation, or wealth, or health.
Simultaneously, gratitude embraces impermanence and the knowledge things can easily change, moment by moment. It’s an antidote to comparison, as gratitude sees things clearly and unconditionally, without an external marker. Gratitude acknowledges and accepts life as it is. As a result, we develop more appreciation for the good already existing within our lives.
A final note on gratitude
Gratitude connects us with others by removing entitlement, competition, and individuality. Consequently, acknowledging our own good fortune motivates us compassion to those less fortunate, inspiring us to serve others.
Comparison doesn’t have to be the death of joy. Instead, it can be the birth of motivation.