The Comparison Trap

Comparing ourselves to others is a direct path to unhappiness.

Posted Aug 12, 2019

Comparing ourselves to others is a direct path to unhappiness. Sadly, doing so is commonplace. Even people at the pinnacle of attainment do this. There’s always someone else who makes more money, drives a fancier car, lives in a bigger house, or commands more acclaim. It is rare to find people who are satisfied with what they have, who they know, how they are living, and where they are heading, regardless of their circumstances.

Social media platforms are only making this tendency worse because everyone else seems to be doing well all of the time. The photos seem to declare, “Here I am having splendid experiences, while you live your boring life.” We are irked by what we perceive as other people’s advantages over us, what they have that we don’t, what they can do that we can’t. Such comparisons merge into a continual drag on the spirit.

Wendy Lustbader
Little Bird, Big Bird
Source: Wendy Lustbader

In most social contexts, our vulnerabilities remain hidden from each other while our assets are on display. Almost everyone is doing this preening and concealing. Rationally, we know that each of us has some kind of struggle, but do we really believe this? In the dark of the night, we twist and turn as our own inadequacies grow larger in our estimation, and other people’s lives seem steeped in more ease than we have ever known.

In the daily drama at my bird feeder, I watch the tiny birds fly off as soon as a bigger bird arrives. Relativity in size and strength, as well as an incessant competition for resources, are fundamental features of nature. Is our compulsion to compare ourselves to others in our bones?

Yet the tiny birds don’t seem especially perturbed when they give way; they just wait in nearby bushes and return to the feeder after the bigger birds leave. They resume pecking at the suet or gathering up the seeds, with no sign of ruminating over issues of fairness. The discontent is ours. We can’t all be big birds, yet we use our large brains to generate ever more complex miseries for ourselves.

After we have eaten our fill, do we leave for others what we don’t need? The gleanings of our fields and orchards are not kept available for those lacking their own, as so-called “primitive” societies have always done and the birds do without thinking. In our current society, we gobble up and sequester as many resources as we can, because the drive to fend for ourselves has become ceaseless. We have lost any notion of enough.

What’s the use of all this hoarding and pretense? We all have to die someday. Physical frailty is the great equalizer, no matter what we do.

The Buddhists remind us that all accumulation ends in dispersal. The Tenth Commandment warns us against the tumult of yearning for what others possess. I have been at the bedside of people with abundant wealth and those with nothing, and I have seen no differences in their last breaths.

“I’m not better than anyone, and no one’s better than me.” This is what my father-in-law concluded after surviving the Holocaust in Nazi Europe. The only standard he came to value was decent conduct. A keen judge of people, he had a third-grade education and never worried about status: “A professor isn’t better than a bricklayer. The bricklayer might give you a drink of water when you pass him on the road, while the professor turns his back.”                                                   

We don’t have to try to stand out or accomplish more than someone else or make it look like we have everything figured out. The trick is to notice this reflex, name it, and watch it pass through us every time it comes up. This resembles the liberation that arises through the monastic practice of sitting in a bare, cell-like room without adornment. Leonard Cohen did this intermittently during the last decades of his life. He found serenity in relinquishing the adulation of the stage, of being an international star, and making himself into a little bird.

Something good happens when we catch ourselves doing comparisons and call a halt to it. We create an interlude of relief where we let ourselves be. The depth of the relief is instructive. From a shift in perspective, our disparagement of ourselves goes away; our gnawing insecurities relax, at least for an afternoon.

We see what flimsy stuff all this is made of—a bunch of habitual thoughts rushing in when our mood is low, and our guard is down. We can decide to summon the stance of refusal as a daily practice, actively opposing the pressures around us and getting out of the comparison trap.

Copyright: Wendy Lustbader, 2019