It’s often been said that the secret to happiness and inner peace starts with a simple truth: Learn to be satisfied with what you have, look downwards instead of upwards. The aphorism speaks loudly of the human tendency to compare anything and everything. It is from this abyss of the mind that gossip, workplace politics, personal dissatisfaction as well as many other minor and major ills are birthed. Imagine being at a reunion dinner where every attending relative from left to right occupies the center stage to brag about their accomplishments. Perhaps today your cousin made his first million among many, or the sister-in-law goes through with another successful investment. And if you are your average street hawker who is happy enough to just make ends meet, it’s hard to not walk out feeling like the person who just got dropped hard from a major league team. And just like that, life becomes so much harder to contend with.
Allowing our mind free reign to make all sorts of unrestrained comparisons, whether they make us feel better or worse, will quickly sicken the self. For example, it’s well-documented that extensive use of social media is more likely to make us unhappy because people only post about the good things going on in their lives. It gives an unfair representation of a seemingly perfect life beyond our ability to attain – and this begets admiration and jealousy. It also creates wants and desires that would otherwise not have existed. Knowing this person has a new, shiny gadget beyond your budget, that your friend appears to be having more fun with other people than with you, or that someone has a much larger (and more successful) social circle, can quickly add up to a sense of what seems to be the unfairness of life.
Essena O’Neill, who easily amassed more than half a million Instagram followers, many of them teenagers like herself, is a firm reminder that comparisons can eventually get the better of a person. Often portrayed as having the perfect figure, she was the envy of her very young followers who looked to her as the starting point of a normal body. It created unrealistic expectations, festered an over-emphasis on physical beauty, and eventually, O’Neill could not keep up with the facade. She tearfully admitted that her photos were ‘contrived perfection made to get attention’ and that many seemingly casual shots involved strategic posing, expert makeup and were retaken up to a hundred times before editing. O’Neill compared herself upwards with the likes of unhealthy perfection pursued by supermodels, and likewise her followers only enviously saw someone with a better body than them.
Millionaires are no different. USB’s recent survey revealed that the very rich are often dissatisfied with the money they have. While a million dollars is enough to last a few lifetimes if keeping to a modest and humble lifestyle, the wealthy elites do not align themselves with the ordinary folks. They look at those higher up in asset worth and feel pressure and misery trying to scale the unending ladder. In a world where most of us live better than ancient kings (which ancient royalty had a Nintendo Switch or even a television?), happiness still remains elusive because we don’t learn to be satisfied with our lot, but instead always aim higher. It’s also unhelpful that advertisements only unconsciously create artificial needs that we otherwise do not require. In what way is the newest smartphone or Playstation 4 necessary for survival? But because others have it, so too must we possess it. There’s a sort of sad predictability to human behaviour, and also why companies are willing to invest heavily in advertising.
While comparisons do generate the competition needed to force innovation and self-improvement, it also leads to an obsessive preoccupation with doing better or having more, and this often comes at the expense of family, the self and ethics. Those who keep running on the hamster wheel while many other important commitments burn down by the side often stop a little too late, and for that, just as there are countless such stories of regret, there are also as many newcomers eager to take the honorary mantle of running on said wheel , until they too are burned. From society’s point of view, comparisons are not just encouraged, but also stoked to become intense competition. Whether it’s the extreme pressure of the Korean / Chinese education system or working yourself to death in Japan (known as 過労死 Karōshi), it’s economically beneficial for the government, even as you self-destruct your personal relationships and morality.
Comparisons also exist in areas we don’t expect. Religious people compare one faith to another to feel more secure in their absurd fairy-tales. By pointing out the shortcomings of another faith while unconsciously failing to notice the same nonsense that occupy the entirety of one’s own holy book is a good way to feel confident about your belief. Workplace gossip also becomes a place to make yourself feel better by disparaging your opponents even though you don’t have enough information on hand to support your hypothesis. It’s unfortunate that when we do compare, which is numerous and repeated, they are often done in ways that are unintelligent or unhelpful for self-improvement.
Even relationships are not spared. We base our immediate decisions and judgements by looking back at our very first experiences. In an interview, one woman said that after having gone through multiple failed romances that ended in abuse or shaming, she didn’t really care for appearances, power or money. She just wanted a partner who would love her wholesomely and make her feel important. On the other hand, if our first romantic tangle was with someone attentive, kind and warm, we have a tendency to always look back at that first experience and wonder why we don’t receive the same sort of feeling or care as we used to, and this can stifle future romances. Potential romantic interests may feel that they can’t live up to an impossible benchmark. Is that a bad thing? It’s hard to say, and even if you knew your mind was making comparisons, it’s difficult to filter out memories or to put aside the good and the bad.
Ultimately, we are hardwired to compare, and it takes both wisdom and a great deal of mistakes to unlearn this behaviour. If tempered with rationality and clear thinking, we can still look upwards without feeling like we are missing something but it’s a feat that’s not easy to pull off. In the worst case scenario, there’s always the choice of walking out of the room, foregoing a career, or giving up a friendship.
So, have you thought about (HYTA) how comparisons affect who we are?