Post-Platform Reflection: “Is Comparison the Thief of Joy?”

[This is the second of what we hope will be a regular feature on this blog: brief reflections by the Leaders on recent Platform Addresses, posted when the podcasts become available. Find the rest of the reflections here.]

Last Sunday, Kate asked whether it is true that “comparison is the thief of joy,” as the old adage suggests. It certainly was for me: I used to be a compulsive comparer, always comparing my achievements with those of my friends and of famous figures. Every time I had a goal for myself, I would rush to Wikipedia to find out at what age famous people had achieved something similar, and berate myself if I was already “late” in achieving it. Facebook, too, was a minefield of unflattering comparisons: I would see my friend’s successes, and judge myself harshly by their light. While I tried to be happy for my friends, and celebrate their victories, there was always an undercurrent of unease, as if their glory diminished my own. It was a stressful way to live – at times it made me envious of my friends and unappreciative of my own life.

Kicking the comparison habit has been the work of many years of introspection and self-work. I knew making these comparisons was a problem, and that it wasn’t helping me live a joyful life – but it was also part of my psychology. I am highly achievement oriented, and want to succeed, so in some sense comparing myself to others was providing me with an impetus to push myself harder. It would be good to harness this impulse in a healthier way, I think.

I was struck, then, by Kate’s point that comparing ourselves with others (or with our past selves) isn’t always bad. She argues, convincingly, that comparison can spur us to work harder and improve ourselves, or can help us be more thankful for what we have compared with those less fortunate, or who live in different eras. This is important to remember: it would be wrong to say “comparing ourselves with others is always bad,” and thereby to lose out on the opportunities for growth that thoughtful comparisons offer. Kate and I joke sometimes that the Ethical Humanist answer to every question is “It depends,” but there’s an important truth at the core of the joke: we don’t like to make universal declarations, and making comparisons certainly isn’t universally bad.

So the task is not never to compare ourselves with others, but to do so in a way which adds to our life rather than detract from it. The first step toward doing this is being thoughtful and reflective about the comparisons we make, so that we can intelligently examine them and ask whether they are serving us or not. Armed with Kate’s sage advice, I’m going to be more careful about the ways in which I compare myself to others in the future, ensuring I am not using comparison as a stick to beat myself with, but as an opportunity for learning and growth.