What is the thief of joy? Comparison.
Among other things, comparing yourself to others can be a thief of your joy, happiness, and contentment. However, comparison is an automatic behavior (source) so it is nearly impossible to quit completely. Fortunately comparison may be harnessed toward a healthier form than typical comparison. First, let’s unpack comparison.
In the field of psychology, comparison is studied as the term “social comparison” and Leon Festinger is an initial theorist. Festinger proposed “that individuals are motivated to gain accurate evaluations of themselves by examining their opinions and abilities in comparison to others” (source). In short, people compare themselves to others in order to know themselves. He also hypothesized that people are more likely to compare themselves to people who they recognize as similar to them. While this process is perfectly normal and seeming harmless, there are a few detrimental downsides. (As well as some upsides.)
There are two kinds of social comparison, upwards and downwards.
Upwards consists of seeking out people you perceive as similar, for comparison. In one respect, this is fortunate because this can prompt one to make life improvements to measure up to better models. Alternately it can cause you to discount yourself and lower your regard for your sense-of-self. For example, you may earn a 90 out of 100 on a test, yet you compare yourself to the person who earned 100, and feel that your performance is substandard. If you notice from the past example this can lead to feelings of inadequacy as well as fierce competitiveness. Further, upward comparison encourages uniformity and there is a tendency to conform to the comparison subject or group (especially as you consider the person or group to be similar to you).
Downwards comparison involves comparing oneself to those who seem dissimilar from you. In moderation it can help one to feel better about their self and situation. Yet some downward comparison is partly the source of a superior attitude that supports stereotyping and other destructive behaviors. Interestingly, this defensive strategy serves to help people, “dissociate themselves from perceived similarities and to make themselves feel better about their self or personal situation”(Source). In other words, you may realize you aren’t as bad off as others in more grim circumstances, so it boosts your sense-of-self.
Can people just one type of comparison for a better outcome? No, it is not that simple.
Only engaging in upward comparison encourages uniformity, sacrificing your authentic self to be like the rest, and you may wind up with lower self-regard. Conversely, downward comparison alone may cause you to have and inflated sense of self, and with such high self-regard there is no motivation to try self improvement. So, both types of comparison are important, but problematic. Luckily, it is possible to guide this automatic, and sometimes subliminal compulsion to compare toward a healthier end.
I propose, to first work to gain a general awareness of how you compare yourself currently. Next, make adjustments as necessary to compare yourself to yourself. This way you may evaluate your own efforts and circumstances relative to your past self, rather than in contrast to others.
Using social comparison to compare yourself with yourself (most of the time), will likely help you keep more of your joy, contentment and happiness in place. Ultimately, social comparison is something you already engage in, it is simply a matter of how you wish direct your comparisons.