Many well-intentioned people have recited the adage, Comparison is the thief of joy. I myself have been one of those people.
However, I’ve realized that this adage scratches at the surface of a much deeper issue.
I do not believe that comparison has to steal joy. The mere act of realizing somebody is taller than I am does not immediately make me discontent with my own height. Did I compare? Yes. Did I lose joy? No.
This is one of the dilemmas that we often have as individuals, and as a society: we blame the wrong source for our woes. Or, as one of my best friends used to say, we need to attack the lion, not the flies buzzing around the lion.
Here’s what I’m getting at. The mere act of comparison is simply observing, perhaps taking stock of, the differences between one thing and another.
We compare all the time. We compare deals at the grocery store. We compare phone plans. We compare career options. We compare different pairs of shoes to decide which one to purchase.
Comparison is an important act of discernment. If we weren’t able to compare, we would be unable to make wise decisions.
So when does comparison become a problem?
It becomes a problem when it leads to, or stems from, envy. Envy is what makes us sick in the heart. Envy is what drives us to desire the downfall of another. Envy makes us discontent, joy-less, and sometimes even vengeful.
Someone told me recently that envy is the only one of the 7 deadly sins that is no fun at all. Isn’t that true? Indulge in the other 7 sins and you might reap instant gratification (and some long-term suffering). Indulge in envy, and all you reap is more dissatisfaction, discontentment, and ill will.
But comparison does not have result in envy. Comparison can result in admiration, inspiration, and motivation. It can make us grateful that we can look at others and desire more for ourselves. It can make us humble and realize that we still have a long way to go.
Comparison is not the thief of joy. Envy, on the other hand, will steal your joy, your relationships, your motivation, and so much more.
How to stop envy in its tracks
We should not go through life with blinders on in order to avoid comparison, but we can train our hearts out of the habit of envy.
So what do we do when we see someone who has something we desire for ourselves, and that familiar bitterness begins to seep in?
1) We can trust that there’s more to the story.
No, life is not a zero-sum game where everyone has the same amount of fortune and misfortune. But just because somebody seems to excel at one thing does not mean they excel at everything. Or just because they seem to excel at everything does not mean that they have everything. There’s more to their story than the one thing that we want. And if we take the time to explore that story, it’s likely the envy will go away.
2) We can become more aware of the need around us and seek to alleviate it.
The more time you spend sharing with someone in need, the less time you have to think about your own lack. And that can be a good thing. I am a strong believer that generosity must be cultivated at every season of life, not just when we think we finally have enough. And no matter how much or how little you have, it is likely that you can be generous in several different ways.
3) We can remember that there is no use in envying those who do wrong.
Has someone been able to “get ahead” because they did something dishonest? It can be tempting to envy them for that, and perhaps even justify revenge against them in the name of “justice.” But think twice before you indulge that temptation: our choices shape our desires, and our desires shape who we are. If dishonesty is not something you desire for yourself, then there is no reason to envy someone who has given in to it.
4) We can take note of what we admire and put our energy towards that.
If someone has accomplished something we hope to accomplish, we can probably learn a lesson or two from them. The ability to recognize what exactly that person has done, and then to emulate it (uniquely of course), can take us a long way. So, the next time you feel tempted to envy someone’s accomplishments, ask them instead. Ask them how they got to where they are– and use it as an opportunity to learn and to network.
5) We can let go of our imperfections and recover from the desire to be perfect.
You know what else steals joy? Perfectionism. And so often our need to be perfect makes us envy and despise those who have what we don’t (and might never) have. Are you a recovering perfectionist? Then join me (and a bunch of other people) in conquering it— read more about perfectionism here.
6) Get lost in something greater than all of us.
That feeling of walking into the woods or hiking up a mountain, and realizing that we are tiny— that’s a feeling that can heal. In other words, the decision to be humble before greater things can help us look beyond our insufficiencies and what little more someone has than we do. What are our petty score sheets in the face of true beauty and true greatness?
Don’t stop comparing; stop envying.
Let’s be people who can understand our limitations without feeling anger towards those who don’t have them.
Let’s be people who can look at excellence and feel admiration, not indignation.
Let’s be people who are free to observe reality as it is without allowing it to steal our joy.
Let’s train our hearts for greater things, so that we can support and encourage each other on this journey.