“Compare and contrast.” It’s a staple of essay questions on college final exams.
But be careful about applying it to life.
Many people make themselves unhappy by comparing themselves to others who seem better off. They think that the other people are:
- More popular
I’ll tell you a few secrets about all those lucky people.
Everyone’s got problems
First, the seemingly “lucky” people have just as many problems as we do. We simply don’t know about their problems. We only hear about the good things.
Most of us try to present our best face to the world. We tell everyone about our triumphs and good deeds, not about our defeats and shameful moments. As a result, other people get a distorted picture of our lives. They think that we are the lucky ones.
People with problems can be happy
Second, they are just as likely to be happy or unhappy as we are. Their problems seem as big to them as ours do to us, even if we would consider their problems trivial.
Did you ever wonder why so many Hollywood beautiful people seem so angry? It’s because they’re miserable. They hoped that getting rich and famous would make them happy, but it didn’t. They still feel worthless and insecure. So they lash out in every direction at anyone who they think might be causing their unhappiness. It can never work, because they’re looking for the wrong cause in the wrong place.
Happiness isn’t a zero-sum game
Third, what happens in other people’s lives usually has nothing to do with us. We have the same chance to be happy regardless of what happens to them.
We over-value the things we don’t have
It’s human nature to under-value what we have and to over-value what we don’t have. Wherever we are, we always feel like there’s a better place just over the horizon.
But if we stop and think about all the good things we have, we can be happy even as we search the horizon for ways to improve.
When it’s okay to compare
We should only compare ourselves to others if we have a specific, constructive reason.
That doesn’t mean our emotions can’t be involved. It just means that our comparisons must serve a rational purpose.
For example, two of my brothers are physicians. One is a year older than the other. To get into medical school, they both had to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). When he took the test, the younger one had an emotional but constructive goal: to get a higher score than his older brother. He did. Their sibling competition spurs both of them to work harder and to do more good in the world.
Similarly, comparing ourselves to others can inspire us to improve or do positive things:
- Maybe they’ve achieved something great, and we want to do something like that.
- Maybe they have outstanding personal qualities that we’d like to emulate, such as courage, compassion, honesty, or work ethic.
- Or maybe they’re awful people who have done terrible things. They inspire us to examine our own conduct and make sure that we’re living up to our ideals.
So if you compare yourself to others, make sure you’re doing it in the right way and for the right reasons.
Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”