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Comparison is the Thief of Joy: How Envy Steals Happiness

Comparison is the Thief of Joy: How Envy Steals Happiness

Theodore Roosevelt said, “comparison is the thief of joy.” What is the meaning of that phrase?

Comparisons steal our satisfaction and rob us of long-term happiness. When we compare ourselves against those who look better or perform better, we feel inadequate and inferior. These comparisons don’t fill our hearts with joy. Instead, they cause us to lose hope and confidence in ourselves.

Deep inside, we know comparisons lower our self-confidence and limit our happiness, so why do we continue to rank our abilities against our peers?

Comparison is the Thief of Joy

This week, I arrived at the gym just after eight. My kids were on their way to school, and I was all alone in a peaceful spot on the elliptical.

Everything felt right with the world until a muscular woman stepped onto the treadmill directly in front of me. She stretched, took a swig of water, and started running at a breakneck pace—her blond ponytail wagging back and forth in front of me.

I’m not sure of her age, but I felt ancient by comparison. Where this woman’s body is tight, mine jiggles. Where my hair is gray, hers is blond and shiny. 

Watching her, I grew keenly aware of the shape of my body and the chronic pain that plagues me. It was eight o’clock in the morning on a Monday, and jealousy­ took hold of me.

Comparison is the thief of joy

Envy is the Thief of Joy

Do you compare yourself to others? Do you find yourself making comparisons at work or in social situations?

Most of us do. We subconsciously compare our bodies, health, wealth, careers, social lives, and intelligence. We compare how we parent our children, complete our job duties, and maintain our relationships too.

How do we measure up to our peers? Are we much better than some? Are we much worse than others? 

Some people will say these comparisons drive us to do better and be better, but I believe they rob us of joy.

Why is Comparison the Thief of Joy?

When we compare ourselves to others, we focus on what we lack rather than appreciating what we have. Fixating on comparisons leaves us feeling depressed, shameful, and sad. Comparison, by itself is not a thief of joy. It’s the feelings of envy and jealousy tied to those comparisons that rob us of happiness.

Don’t Compare Your Beginning to Someone Else’s Middle.

As I watched the woman run on the treadmill in front of me, I reflected on my jealousy. I didn’t judge my feelings or try to push them away. 

Instead, I recognized the envy for what it was—a feeling. I became aware of the emotion without feeling bad that it was there.

What do you do when you feel jealous? Do you step back to assess your emotional state? Do you put yourself in another person’s shoes? 

As I contemplated my jealousy, I began to wonder how much time and energy this woman spent working out.

I don’t know how many times she steps onto a treadmill each week. Maybe she works out every day or multiple times a day. I don’t know how many hours she spends toning her body or the calories she carefully counts. 

Perhaps she loves to run, but maybe she’s running from demons. Maybe she was once overweight or picked on for being chubby as a child. Maybe she runs to relieve her stress or because she traded an addiction to bad habits for an addiction to working out.

Are you jealous of your boss’s salary? Do you know how many days and nights he spends in the office? 

Are you jealous of your neighbor’s house? What sacrifices has she made to pay for it? 

Were their prizes worth the effort and energy?

When we compare ourselves to others, we rob ourselves of happiness. We allow jealousy and envy to construct a false illusion. We walk away from these encounters with low self-confidence, and if we’re not careful, we can damage our mental health.

Why do we let envy become the thief of joy? Why don’t we step back to look at the bigger picture?

Messy Parts of Our Lives

Why do we look at the result? Because we don’t talk about the messy parts of our lives, our heartbreaks, and failures. 

I have a friend who cries before attending baby showers. She puts on beautiful clothes and makeup and tells everyone about her carefree, childless life. On the outside, she looks happy and fulfilled, but on the inside, she desperately yearns for a family. 

She’s not the only one who hides her true feelings. Most of us don’t discuss life plans that went awry or talk about our fears and insecurities.

When your friend discusses her new job, does she mention the rejection letters that came before it? When your coworker talks about her new love, does she mention years of failed relationships and horrible first dates?

Most of us share the best parts of our lives, and social media furthers this grand deception. We post the most flattering images of ourselves without the behind-the-scenes shambles.

Our projections rarely reflect our true identity. Imagine snapping a picture-perfect Christmas card photo while your marriage is failing.

If most people present a false reality, then we aren’t comparing ourselves to someone else. Instead, we are comparing ourselves to fictional stories and illusions.

We fixate on the tiny tidbits of information people share. Sure, the girl at the gym is blond and beautiful, but does she have a happy life? Does she struggle to pay her bills? Does she have a loving partner and children who adore her? 

We may think someone has it all, only to realize they are also suffering. Comparing your whole self to a part of someone else is not a meaningful comparison.

It’s pointless to compare yourself to someone else when you don’t know all the pieces of that person. It’s also pointless to compare your average attributes to someone’s best parts. No one is the best at everything.

Jealousy is the Thief of Joy

The worst part of comparing ourselves to others isn’t feeling jealous or envious. It’s failing to see the beauty of our uniqueness. Our comparisons limit our potential. 

Albert Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. “

If we fixate on the nagging voice in our minds, we fail to highlight our strengths or celebrate our individuality. When jealousy rears its ugly head, we dismiss our talents and diminish our capacity for creativity.

When we focus on comparison, we lose sight of our talents. We fixate so narrowly on coveted prizes that we miss out on the best parts of our journey.

When comparison robs me of joy, I tell myself not to share my thoughts or tell my story. I convince myself that someone else can do a better job. Surely, someone else can write this blog post better than I will.

I am not alone in this behavior. A few years ago, I started reaching out to fellow writers and told them how much I enjoyed their work. 

Time and time again, they spoke poorly of themselves. 

  • “I don’t receive much traffic these days.” 
  • “I have less engagement than before.”
  • “My stats are decreasing.”

If the people I admire question their work and ability, imagine how I feel. We stop sharing the best parts of ourselves when we believe everyone else does a better job than we can. 

How can we act creatively despite the innate and harmful competition?

Bill Gates once said, “Don’t compare yourself with anyone in this world. If you do so, you are insulting yourself.”

We are unique and complex creatures. What qualities do we silence when we compare? What great things do we miss out on by trying to fit in a box built by society?

How Do You Measure Success?

We use comparison to measure our happiness. Do I earn enough? Do I live in a big enough house? 

But these comparisons don’t make us happier. Instead, they steal our joy.

Are you comparing yourself to others because that’s the only way to say you made it? 

The finish line to success lies just out of reach, and the corporate ladder works much the same way. The highest rung is always slightly beyond our fingertips. As soon as we step forward, we find more people standing above us.

As we climb the ladder, we meet more successful people. Do we stop comparing ourselves? No, we begin new comparisons.

Worse yet, if you keep looking up, you will never look down. You will never see how far you’ve come. 

Comparing yourself is a waste of time. Worrying that you aren’t as good as someone else doesn’t move your pendulum in a particular direction. 

Instead, it keeps you trapped in a loop of never-ending comparisons. So what if you are better than one person? What happens when you move up the ranks and fall below someone else?

Create a New Metric to Compare Yourself

If you find yourself making comparisons to others, I urge you to write down your definition of success. When you feel jealous of someone else, ask yourself, “does their version of success match mine?”

What metric are you using for comparison? Do you care about the size of someone’s house or the amount of money they make? Do you care about their job title or the car that sits in their driveway?

Some people want millions of dollars, a large house in the suburbs, and two kids. Is that what you want? What version of success do you want to measure yourself by? 

Remember that you can set a path to success and never enjoy the fruits of your labor. You can become successful at work and miss time with your family.

Society’s high expectations can send us down the wrong path, so what do you want? Expectations can be the thief of joy too. Ignore what everyone else has around you. If you had complete time freedom, what would you do?

Do you want to travel, spend your days helping others, immerse in creative endeavors, or spend time with your children? What brings you fulfillment?

Don’t waste your time and energy on someone else’s dreams. Instead, focus on where you want to go.

Measure Yourself By Your Inner Scorecard

We tend to compare ourselves when we feel small. As a kid, I envied the popular girls in school. They looked beautiful on the outside, but many were mean, shallow, and insensitive. 

Why was I comparing myself to such awful people? Search for the good in others. Care about what lies within, not what is visible.

We think about success as objects, houses, cars, and high-paying salaries, but what about love, compassion, and kindness. How can we compare the things we cannot see?

Warren Buffett once said, “I got an awful lot of good advice from my dad. He taught me that it’s more important in terms of what’s in your inner scorecard than your outer scorecard. Some people get into a position where they think about what the world is going to think of this or that, instead of what they themselves are going to think about it.”

You don’t have to adhere to society’s definition of success. When you lay on your death bed, do you think you’ll care about another man’s treasures? You won’t. 

You’ll care about the loved ones who hold your hand and sit beside you. Be the best person you can be and cultivate a sense of security and peace with those you meet. That means more than a world full of treasures.

So how can we stop comparing?

Compare Yourself to Your Past and Future

When I look back at pictures of my twenty-year-old self, I see the beauty I couldn’t see in my youth. When I was living in that moment, I compared myself to all of the twenty-year-olds who stood beside me.

Now in my mid-forties, I see my bright, rosy-cheeked, wrinkle-free face in a new light. The same will be true twenty years from now when I’m sixty.

If you struggle to see your beauty, flash forward into the future and imagine looking back on yourself. Visualize your magnificence, intellect, and strength.

Don’t wait until time passes.

Begin with an Open Mindset

Avoid viewing the world with a scarcity mindset. Instead, believe that there is more than enough to go around. 

When you focus on abundance, you won’t need to compete for every raise or vie for every promotion. There are more than enough opportunities for us to grab. 

We grow up believing we either win or lose, but what if we could all be winners? Can we succeed in ways that highlight our unique abilities?

Form Deep Connections

Jealousy keeps us from forming deep connections with others. When we perform poorly, we feel jealous. When we perform well, we become vain and self-absorbed, but making ourselves feel better through comparisons won’t last long. You may be on the top of the world today, but what happens tomorrow when your characteristics and abilities don’t measure up? 

Are you a step above or below the people you meet? What happens after you surpass your competition? Do you step over the people that fall below you?

When we compete against others, it’s difficult to forge deep relationships. Rather than connecting, we begin to view people as stepping stones.

Stop viewing people as competitors. Learn to see your commonalities to create better teams.

Be Compassionate

Treat yourself the same way you would treat a friend. Be compassionate with yourself, and don’t feel pressured to fit neatly into society’s definition of success.

Rather than judging yourself against someone else, celebrate the great things you see when you look in the mirror.

Learn to believe in yourself and focus less on what others think of you. If you need help, reach out to a friend. The world is full of cheerleaders.

While focusing internally, learn to be grateful and appreciate what you have rather than focusing on what you don’t.

Search for Role Models

Rather than coveting other people’s attributes and abilities, figure out how to learn from them. If you want to get in shape, ask someone strong or flexible. If you want to improve your skills, ask for suggestions and pointers.

Rather than outpacing a competitor, turn them into a role model.

Don’t Let Comparison Steal Your Joy.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “comparison is the thief of joy,” but you don’t have to let comparison be the thief of your happiness.

When jealousy or envy arises, don’t push your feelings away. Instead, take time to reflect on them. 

Then remember that life is not a race, and you don’t have to be a competitor.

Competing diminishes our creativity and hampers our happiness. Instead of trying to outpace your friends, coworkers, and neighbors, look straight towards the finish line. Then, instead of racing, enjoy the journey that lies ahead.

Feeling Behind: Comparison Is the Thief of Joy

Tuesday 29th of March 2022

[…] reminds us not to compare our beginning to someone’s else’s middle. […]

She's Fired

Tuesday 15th of March 2022

Sadly, I can't figure out how to not compete, and I struggle with this. I've gotten better at seeing the other side of things though, and pointing out to my jealous little inner child the cons. I went to borrow some ski clothes from a friend and her house was FABULOUS. Like Architectural Digest fabulous- cause her husband is an architect. But I reminded myself that her husband won't let her quit working and mine did.

Great post- and your site looks great!

One Frugal Girl

Monday 11th of April 2022

@She's Fired, Great job looking at why the grass is greener on your side of the fence! It's tough not to feel jealous. I'm doing a better job of recognizing it without allowing it to change my mindset.

David F.

Wednesday 2nd of March 2022

Lots of good reminders. I agree that reframing can be tremendously helpful. I have to remind myself often: don’t compare; if you do compare, choose favorable metrics. Thanks for sharing.

One Frugal Girl

Wednesday 2nd of March 2022

Hi David, Thank you for your comment. I appreciate the thought "if you do compare." It's natural to compare. The question is what do we do with that comparison? Changing the metrics certainly helps!