Why you should compare yourself to others

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…

We all do it. We look around and compare ourselves with others: our success, what we have, where we live.

As a social animal, it’s natural to look for signs that tell us where we might fit in our social groups and communities.

Not only is it natural, it’s amplified by capitalism via our advertising-saturated world.

Making us feel less than or otherwise lacking so we can be sold the solution: sold satisfaction and happiness – with convenient finance options.

But it isn’t true to say that comparing ourselves to others is a bad idea. In fact, sometimes it can be very useful to do so – when done in a particular way.

Generally, we get ourselves into trouble because we compare ourselves to people who seem to be doing better, or have more than us – without allowing ourselves to contemplate the messy reality of others’ lives.

People also, especially when feeling down, can use comparisons as a way to attack themselves – how can you possibly be upset when people in the world are starving?

“First world problem,” we say as we laugh to ourselves and roll our eyes.

The problem with this kind of comparison is that it is fundamentally invalidating. It says we aren’t allowed the feelings we have.

It also rests on a shaky logic: As I often say to clients, the problem with this view is that somewhere in the world is one person who objectively is the worst off out of everyone, and is the only one who has the right to feel distressed.

The kind of comparison that is useful is also tricky because it requires compassion, not judgement. When we can compare ourselves to those who are worse off, but with a sense of kindness and the intention to generate gratitude, it can be very helpful.

Helpful because it shifts our attention to what we do have, and helpful because it allows us to see the truth of suffering: that we make things worse, or better for ourselves depending on what we pay attention to.

Ultimately, of course, this kind of comparison has little to do with what others have, and simply means we pay better attention to ourselves, and allow gratitude to become our focus.

To do this is to swim against the tide. It is to switch off the advertising, to get off the constant treadmill of capitalist consumption, and allow ourselves to enjoy what we have.

And of course when we do that we recognise it’s never the things that we really value.

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