Comparison is the thief of joy

Comparison Is the Thief of Joy: Overcoming the Pitfalls of Envy and Dissatisfaction

Think about five things you want (material goods or otherwise) that you don’t yet have; how do they make you feel? Are you excited about going on the journey to acquire them, or do you feel bad seeing other people with them because you don’t have them yet? 

You’re not alone if it’s the latter more often than the former. Many of us experience negative feelings about the things we don’t yet have that others do. This inspired the quote “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Often when we want something, we compare ourselves to others who already have what we want, which causes us to fall into impatience, wanting, and jealousy. 

Key Takeaways

  • Comparing ourselves to others can negatively impact our happiness and well-being.
  • Social comparison affects multiple aspects of our lives and extends to community dynamics.
  • Recognizing our unique journeys and adopting strategies to overcome comparison pressures are essential to living beyond comparison.

Origin 

The famous quote “comparison is the thief of joy” is attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States – a man with plenty of wise words to share.

At the core of this quote is the assertion that comparing oneself to others can often lead to unhappiness or dissatisfaction. It insinuates that when people focus on others’ successes, achievements, or possessions, they may overlook their unique qualities, progress, and accomplishments. This can result in feelings of envy and self-doubt, which ultimately steal the joy that comes from self-appreciation and genuine happiness.

Theodore Roosevelt was known for his energy and motivational speeches, and his message of avoiding self-comparison in pursuit of individual success still holds relevance today. In a world where social media and internet culture thrive, comparing oneself to others has become even more prevalent, potentially leading to increased feelings of inadequacy.

Comparing our lives to others is now known as comparisonitis, which describes the sadness and frustration we can feel when we compare to an illness. Most of us have caught comparisonitis at one time or another, especially when browsing social media. 

Biblical Perspective on Comparison

The Bible offers insights into the issue of comparison and its potential impact on our joy. Scripture provides many examples of comparisons, both positive and negative, which can help us understand its role in our lives.

One notable example in the Old Testament is the story of Rachel and Leah, two sisters married to Jacob. Their rivalry and constant comparison led to bitterness, envy, and pain in their family relationships. This story is a cautionary tale in the Word of God about the potential dangers of comparison.

The Apostle Paul addressed the issue of comparison in his writings as well. In 2 Corinthians 10:12, he warned against measuring ourselves against others, saying, “For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.” This scripture highlights the importance of focusing on our relationship with God and the unique path He has set for us.

Furthermore, the Bible advises us to cultivate the fruits of the Spirit, as outlined in Galatians 5:21-23. These qualities include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. By developing these attributes within ourselves, we can experience true joy and satisfaction, rather than seeking happiness through comparison.

In addition to these teachings, the Bible encourages us to practice gratitude and contentment, which can help counteract the negative effects of comparison. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 encourages believers to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” By focusing on our blessings and maintaining a thankful attitude, we can prevent comparison from stealing our joy.

The Impact of Comparison on Happiness

A study published in the Journal of Individual Differences highlights the strong impact that social comparison has on happiness. The results suggest that people who engage less in social comparison and focus more on their personal progress are more likely to experience happiness. It indicates that attitudes towards comparison can be significant predictors of happiness.

So, why is it wrong to compare ourselves to others? Comparing ourselves to others often has negative implications. Here are 5 reasons why: 

  1. Comparison isn’t favorable: We rarely compare ourselves to others to congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come; we usually use that knowledge to beat ourselves up about how we aren’t yet enough. We see all the ways we aren’t progressing fast enough, the opportunities we may have missed, the decisions we could have made better, and all the things we should do to get that designer handbag, bigger house, or money that another person has. 
  2. We “should” all over ourselves: Comparison makes us analyze ourselves and our lives through the lens of what we should be, do or have. Recently, therapists have termed this “should-ing all over ourselves” because shoulds are a source of unhappiness.

    Think about it – can you think of a time when you used the word should in a positive context? We almost exclusively use this word when we feel inadequate. For example:
    • I should have gotten that promotion 
    • I should already be married 
    • I should have a bigger house 
    • I should have a better car 
    • I should clean my house 

We only use the word should when we’re comparing ourselves to a vision of ourselves we’re not living up to. It’s perfectionism (I should be able to have a job, kids, partner, cook healthy meals, workout every day, and keep an immaculate home) and response to comparisonitis (I should be able to do all these things because [person you admire or feel in competition with] does it all and more!). 

  1. It asks us to be more than we can be: Feelings of depression and anxiety come when we’re focused on things outside our present. When we compare our lives to what we perceive others’ lives to be, we see all the things we aren’t or don’t have. Other people seem to be able to be, do, and have everything we want, and suddenly, we’re more aware of all the things we’re lacking in our lives. We compare our real lives to our interpretation of their life, and we feel like we should be someone entirely different to be good enough to have the things we want. No joy can come from not feeling good enough. 
  2. It makes us feel like we’re the only ones struggling: When we compare our lives to others, we can only compare what we see their lives as. If we’re comparing ourselves to others on social media, we’re comparing ourselves to an idea of their lives we got from an image, post, or short video; in other words, we’re comparing our entire lives to a snapshot of theirs.

    We don’t see the debt they may have, the dysfunctional relationships they have with others in the family, dissatisfaction at work, or the trials and tribulations they’re going through. We all have crosses to bear, but very few of us are willing to talk openly about them, even with our friends. When we share life’s difficulties, we also present them in a way that makes us feel better about them.

    You simply can’t compare your life accurately to another’s because you can’t know what they’re going through or have been through. Your journey is your own. 
  3. It makes us want more, more, more: Imagine you’re pulling out of your driveway when you see that your neighbor across the street pulls up to their house in your dream car. It’s beautiful, brand new, and to your exact specifications. They wave to you and point at the car, “My new car!”

    You smile and wave and then pull away, burning with jealousy. Why have they got what you want? How did they get it? You look around at your car and notice everything you don’t like about it that you appreciated the day before. Suddenly, you’re not satisfied with what you’ve got.

    This is a trap we can easily fall into when it comes to material things because we can easily see what others have and what we think it takes for them to get that thing. It takes the joy out of the things we already have and makes us feel dissatisfied with all we’ve achieved. 

It’s easy in our modern world to think about what others have because we can see what they have just by opening a social media app. A short 5-minute wait for a dentist appointment can turn into 5 minutes of comparisonitis while you scroll through other people’s best moments. 

So, how do we avoid comparisonitis when it’s such an easy trap? 

Avoid Comparison and Live with More Joy 

You can’t wholly avoid comparing yourself to others, but there certainly are ways to limit its effect on your life so you can live with more joy. Here are some of the best ways to avoid comparing yourself to others negatively: 

  • Get clear on what you really want out of life: When you get clear on a vision for your life that feels good and exciting to you, you’ll be less likely to feel jealous of others. Open a notebook or Google Doc and clear all ideas of what you “should” want or what other people say you should want out of your life from your mind. Then make notes answering the following questions about what you would do with your life if you could do whatever you wanted:
    • Where would I live? 
    • What would I do for work?
    • How would I spend my time? 
    • Who would I spend my time with?
  • Consider your expectations: List everything you should be, do, or have, and consider where that expectation came from. If it’s anything but a healthy expectation for yourself (i.e., I should be a loving mother or father), try to let it go. It may be that it came from societal pressures, the desires of someone close to you, or your old expectations for yourself. 
  • Adopt a discerning attitude toward one’s thoughts and beliefs: By becoming aware of persistent self-doubt or negative thought patterns, you can challenge these thoughts and replace them with a more positive outlook. This can have a transformative effect on your overall mindset and well-being. Try speaking positive affirmations and being kind to yourself instead.
  • Remove people on social media that trigger comparison: Are there certain people you follow online whose content always makes you feel bad about yourself? If so, unfollow them for now, even if you like them. You can always follow them in the future when you think from a more positive place. 
  • Cultivate a sense of contentment and practice gratitude: By focusing on the blessings in one’s own life, it’s easier to develop a positive outlook and appreciate individual uniqueness. Practicing gratitude regularly can help shift your focus from what you perceive as lacking, to recognizing and cherishing the gifts and opportunities you have. Studies have found that people who regularly practice gratitude are far happier than those who don’t. Practicing gratitude includes giving thanks, praying, and even just saying thank you silently in your head, but an easy way to practice gratitude is to write down three things you’re grateful for each day. This short list will help you bring more awareness to the things you already have and love in your life. 
  • Practice love and compassion towards oneself and others: Practicing love and kindness can be achieved through prayer, meditation, or dedicating time to self-care and self-improvement. In doing so, individuals can foster an environment of understanding and empathy rather than fostering feelings of jealousy or inadequacy. Engaging in random acts of kindness by offering assistance or support to those in need, individuals can gain a more profound sense of purpose and fulfillment, knowing that they are making a positive contribution to the lives of others. This can also serve as a reminder that everyone has their own struggles and that it is essential to be compassionate towards oneself and others.
  • Engage in volunteer work or service: Helping others creates a sense of unity and purpose. By actively seeking out opportunities to serve others within their community, individuals can foster a sense of connection with those around them and gain a more balanced perspective on their lives and achievements.

  • Make a list of your accomplishments: We tend to recalibrate and see ourselves as being at the beginning of our journey, even when we are not. Take some time to sit and reflect on all your accomplishments thus far to remind yourself how far you’ve come, even if you’re not yet where you want to be. 
  • Keep it simple. Sit down and make a plan: Simple living teaches us to focus on what’s important. It’s much easier to look at what other people are doing with detachment when you feel like you’re making progress and know where you’re headed. When you’re clear on what you want, plan at least one step you can take to move closer to your goals and try to take it within the next week. This is especially important if you’ve got big goals but have felt stuck for some time. 

Live Beyond Comparison and Take Your Joy Back

You’ll never be able to stop comparing yourself to others entirely – it’s only natural to see what others have and think, “I want that too.” But try to notice when you’re thinking negative thoughts about yourself instead of excitement for the future. When you’re feeling negative, remember the quote, “comparison is the thief of joy,” practice one of the exercises in the section above, and do something you enjoy. You’ll soon be in a better headspace. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the origin of the quote ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’?

The quote “Comparison is the thief of joy” is often attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. Although this exact phrase is not found in his speeches or writings, it is believed to paraphrase his thoughts on the negative consequences of comparison.

Are there any similar quotes about the dangers of comparing ourselves to others?

Yes, several quotes highlight the dangers of comparing ourselves to others. For instance, C.S. Lewis once said, “Comparison is the death of joy,” and Mark Twain is known to have said that “Comparison is the death of contentment.” These quotes, as well as the one attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, emphasize the negative impact of comparison on our happiness and well-being.

How have historic philosophers addressed the concept of comparison?

Historic philosophers have often acknowledged the potential detrimental effects of comparison on human happiness. For example, the Greek philosopher Socrates spoke about the importance of knowing ourselves and cultivating self-awareness rather than comparing ourselves to others. Similarly, the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius emphasized improving oneself rather than competing with others.

Can you provide popular media examples that discuss the thief of joy concept?

There are numerous popular media articles and blog posts that discuss the concept of comparison as the “thief of joy.” Additionally, several self-help books, such as “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brené Brown and “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey, address the importance of focusing on self-improvement rather than comparing oneself to others.

What is the psychological reasoning behind the negative impact of comparison?

Psychologically, comparing ourselves with others can lead to feelings of inadequacy or superiority, both detrimental to our emotional well-being. Studies in social comparison theory suggest that people often use unrealistic targets when evaluating themselves, ultimately diminishing their self-esteem and satisfaction. To combat this, experts recommend recognizing and acknowledging such comparisons while focusing on personal growth and gratitude.

Does any religious text address the idea of comparison as a source of unhappiness?

Yes, religious texts often address the idea of comparison as a source of unhappiness. For example, the Bible offers guidance on the dangers of comparison and encourages people to appreciate what they have in the present moment. Passages such as Proverbs 14:30, which states, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones,” emphasize the importance of avoiding unfavorable comparisons. Other religious texts, like the Bhagavad Gita and the Quran, also discuss the importance of focusing on one’s spiritual growth and contentment instead of comparing oneself to others.

Theresa Bedford is a nationally syndicated writer. Her work has been seen on the Associated Press Wire, Blox Digital, and MSN. She writes about productivity, money, and simple living to help people focus on what really matters in life.