Is Comparison Really the Thief of Joy?

New research explores why comparisons get us down and how to avoid this

Posted Mar 21, 2019

Hikers on the Appalachian trail have the motto “hike your own hike”—that is, resist the urge to compare how many miles you cover in a day to how far other hikers are traveling. Nevertheless, the urge to make comparisons is strong.  Our research has found that more than 10% of daily thoughts involved making a comparison of some kind. Despite their prevalence, sayings such as “hike your own hike” and Teddy Roosevelt’s famous assertion that “comparison is the thief of joy” suggest that making comparisons can be harmful and detract from our happiness.  New research suggests that the ways that we make comparisons may give us a biased account of our own skills and experiences.

Research by Sebastian Deri, Shai Davidai, and Thomas Gilovich explored the factors that may underlie FOMO (the "fear of missing out") and the sense that others have better social lives than we ourselves do.  In their research, they found that people believe that they spend more time alone, go to fewer parties, and are part of fewer social circles than other people, including their close friends.  However, these researchers found that this happened in part because people compared themselves to highly visible, highly social people—the “social butterflies” of their circles.

New research from Deri and Davidai published this month finds that people make similarly biased comparisons in other domains as well.  That is, we compare ourselves to the fittest person we know when evaluating how fit we are, the best cook we know when evaluating our cooking skills, etc. Unsurprisingly, this means that we feel that we fall short of others when we evaluate our own fitness, cooking, and so on.

However, it’s clear that who we compare ourselves to matters—and is something we can control. In both sets of studies, the authors found that when people were specifically asked to compare themselves to someone with more moderate abilities, or to a relatively unsocial person, these effects went away.  

Social cognitive psychologists have long known that when we want to feel better about ourselves, we make comparisons to people worse off than we are (or think of ways that things might have been worse than they are). When we want to improve, though, we compare ourselves to people who are better than we are. This is especially effective if we compare ourselves to people we feel like we can realistically become—superstar seniors are more motivating to first-year students than they are to fellow seniors, for instance.

In short, comparison can be the thief of joy, but research offers suggestions for a “security system”:

1. Recognize that you’re likely using an unrealistic target when evaluating yourself and adjust accordingly. For instance, Davidai and Deri found that listing the top 7 people in a category and then comparing yourself to #7 instead of #1 made the biased comparison effect go away.  

2. Consider what you’re trying to achieve when making a comparison.  If you’re trying to become a better cook, comparing yourself to your most cooking-show-ready friend is only useful if you focus on the ways that you could become more like them.  Do they take classes?  Use fresher ingredients?  Always sharpen their knives?

3. If comparisons have you feeling down, spend some time thinking about positives: how much a skill has improved over time, how much worse a situation could be than it is in reality, or others who may see you as a role model right now.  Comparisons can go both ways!

References

Davidai, S., & Deri, S. (2019). The second pugilist’s plight: Why people believe they are above average but are not especially happy about it. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(3), 570-587. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0000580

Deri, S., Davidai, S., & Gilovich, T. (2017). Home alone: Why people believe others’ social lives are richer than their own. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(6), 858-877. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000105