Should we stop comparing?
A wise man once said: “Comparison is the thief of joy” (Theodore Roosevelt), and while he is correct, it is not a particularly helpful statement.
The intuitive solution would be to stop comparing ourselves to others, but this isn’t really an option, akin to choosing not to breathe.
Comparison plays a very important role in our lives, in early development it lets us copy the people around us long before we are able to ask them what they are doing and why.
In later life it lets us take stock of our performance in an objective context, to see if we are falling behind.
The problem often comes from the scale of the comparison.
For 99.999% of our time on this planet, we have only been exposed to the people in our immediate surroundings, (our village/tribe etc) where most people are average, some excel, and some are trailing.
However, through technology, now we are exposed to the top performers across all relevant fields, which combines with our natural tendency for comparison to create a self-assessment disaster.
Cue feelings of disappointment, inferiority, and lack of self-worth, most of which people are already fighting off in their day-to-day lives.
The comparison itself is not the problem, remember that comparison is useful, historically it could signal when somebody knows something you don't, and that information could be the difference between you surviving or not.
Local comparisons were useful, because everyone was on a fairly level playing field, if the neighbouring tribe is more successful with their hunting, you need to know why.
If your neighbours crops are much healthier than yours, there’s something you might be missing.
When you compare your personal skills and attributes to the people in your tribe or close circle, your comparison is more comprehensive. You know that while John may have the best arm for throwing, he isn’t very fast, or he isn’t very good at handling conflict, or managing his relationships. We know John, so we get a more complete picture, and because of that, we don’t feel like as much of a piece of shit because we can’t throw as well as him.
When we compare ourselves on social media to random strangers halfway across the world, we only see their specialty, the one thing they are amazing at, and the rest of their life is (unsurprisingly) hidden away, because it's probably not noteworthy, it might even be (gasp) below average.
So unlike John, we don’t see a complete picture, we can only compare against what we are shown, and that can leave us feeling pretty bad.
It’s tough because we have an evolutionary mismatch, our brains are wired for comparison, but we haven’t caught up to the fact that we can now make comparisons that aren’t useful to us because they aren’t comprehensive enough.
So a system that was once a great way to keep track of how you were doing, is now being hijacked in a way that creates a lot of negative emotion.
So is there a solution?
For some, quitting some platforms is the best choice, for others, putting restrictions on social media is suitable.
Regardless, I think we need to make our comparisons more accurate.
What if we only compared to people who we know are in a very similar situation to us?
Could that reduce the scope of our comparisons and reduce our feelings of inferiority?
Who knows, maybe just being aware of this discrepancy could help?
This is just one of many tradeoffs that come with technological advancement, and one that is not going away any time soon