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The Dangers of Comparison

danger of social comparison
❝A six-inch line is short relative to an eight-inch line. An eight-inch line is short relative to a ten-inch line.❞ -Tibetan saying

It’s 2008, and I'm at my desk on a Friday, lost in my work. I notice a new email that just came in. The software that we use puts out a regular newsletter, and the most recent one has just been released. I always look forward to reading this, so I set my work aside and print it out.

I read an article written by Joe, a guy in New York who works for a firm as their head of operations. In essence, that means he's responsible for how smoothly the process runs. I read everything that he writes. I'm fascinated by his automation skills.

I also work in automation, and I think I'm pretty good. But I'm nowhere near Joe’s level. I start to feel overwhelmed because I want to get to his level, but there's way too much to learn. I'll never be as good as Joe.

The next day I'm running an obstacle course race. I never liked running for running's sake when I was growing up; I always had an objective when running, like to get around the bases or get into the end zone. In this case, I enjoy jogging, mostly because I get to break up the running with obstacles. I feel pretty good about this. I'm in pretty good shape, and I'm pretty quick. I think I might even win my age division.

I don't even come close to winning. I'm not in the top 50. Everybody else is so fast and efficient. I start to wonder if it's even possible for me to win a race like this. I'm not good enough to beat everybody else.

Later that night, I start playing the drums. I find it fun and relaxing to play grooves and learn different patterns. I go onto YouTube to see if there are any new drum fills I can learn. What I find is that I suck as a drummer. I can't understand how these people move their hands and feet the way they do. There's no way I'm ever going to be that good.

Comparing myself to others did not bring me any happiness. Sure, they gave me direction and showed me what's possible, but it did little to nothing for my self-esteem. I could have been happy knowing that I had a great eye for automation. I could have been satisfied knowing that most people wouldn't be able to finish this obstacle course race, and I finished in the middle of the pack. I could have had a lot of fun playing the drums and learning from better people than me.

Instead, I let myself be unhappy because I would never be as good as the people who are the best.

Relative Sensitivity

Psychologists talk about a term called hedonic adaptation. The idea is that we get used to our surroundings. Lottery winners, for example, quickly become used to their new level of wealth, and before long, it's just part of daily life. They take their new life for granted. On the flip side, people who have spinal cord injuries that result in them becoming quadriplegic actually get used to their new life over time, as well.

Psychologists also talked about a term called relative deprivation. The idea is that, because we get used to our new levels so quickly, we find that we compare ourselves not to who we used to be, but rather to those who have more than us. Relatively speaking, we feel like we are deprived.

Due mainly to both hedonic adaptation and relative deprivation, it is easy to take our lives for granted.

relative sensitivity


The antidote to taking our lives for granted is gratitude. Gratitude is simply deliberately paying attention to all the good things that are already in your life. Gratitude is being thankful for how far we've come, rather than how much we have compared to others.

There are many ways to practice gratitude, but one of the more common is writing at the end of the day. Think about three things for which you are grateful at the end of each day. Instead of journaling, you can simply say it out loud or thinking in your head, but by actually writing it down, you force yourself to translate your thoughts into paragraphs and sentences.

Alternatively, I use an eight-item gratitude journal. If you're interested, you can download it here.

The important thing is to actually feel grateful as you are during the exercise. If it feels like a chore, then it won't work.


Wake-Up Calls

When people face an adverse event, like a near-death experience or other traumatic events, it brings people face-to-face with the fact that our lives are short. It helps people reprioritize their lives. Sometimes it gives people the sense that they live on borrowed time, changing their outlook on life.