The Power of Comparison

"Comparison can’t steal your joy if you’re using your own self as the benchmark!" By Joy Mikles

When it comes to the topic of comparison, most people have heard the quote, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” attributed to Theodore Roosevelt. Instinctively, we nod our heads.

The statement is true to an extent. When comparison happens, we tend to believe our joy has decreased because the difference between our situation, position or achieved goals and the magnitude of another’s has been highlighted. We are then left feeling as though our situation is less than because someone else has it so much better. And while this is partially true, comparison is not always a thief of joy. Comparison can be a thief of joy, sure. However, comparison can also lead us to live healthier, joyful lives if we are able to harness our tendencies to compare ourselves to others and instead, learn to compare ourselves to, well, ourselves. 

Comparison theory in psychology breaks down into two forms of comparison. The first is called upward social comparison. “Research indicates that more than 10 percent of our daily thoughts involve making a comparison of some kind,” Amy Summerville, Ph.D. writes in Psychology Today. Oftentimes these comparisons can lead to individuals making biased accounts of one’s own skills and behaviors. For example, most people will compare themselves to another who is more accomplished, more advanced, more traveled, more (fill in the blank) and, because of this comparison, downgrade their own accomplishments, successes and abilities. This is a negative form of upward social comparison in which an individual perceives another as ahead of, above or better at something and will then think negative thoughts about themselves based on the other person’s successes. 

The inverse of upward social comparison is called downward social comparison. In downward social comparison, we tend to make comparisons to make ourselves feel better. This occurs when we view another as having it worse off than we are and, in a way, make ourselves feel better because at least we’re not as bad off as that person. 

Comparison, whether used to make ourselves feel better or to tell ourselves we’re not good enough, can be incredibly unhealthy and can have a negative impact on our self-esteem. The reverse can also be true. When comparing oneself to others, we can harness the power of comparison by using it to use others’ accomplishments as a motivator. When using comparison to motivate, the trick is to compare oneself to someone who is just a few steps ahead of us rather than a master of something. For example, if I wanted to become a great swimmer, I would need to start by challenging myself to meet and/or beat the timed laps of a swimmer at my local pool who is just a few seconds better than me. I would not start by comparing myself to an Olympic medalist. This may seem like an extreme example, but the truth is, we do this type of comparison more often than we are aware. 

To harness the power of comparison, the best person with whom to compare yourself is yourself.  Creating small, meaningful goals that can be achieved within a certain time frame, is the best way to become the person you are hoping to become.  This action also allows us to measure our success and gives us the proper motivation we need to continue moving in the direction we want to go. Comparison can’t steal your joy if you’re using your own self as the benchmark!   

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