Two standard pieces of advice we often hear: don’t compare yourself to other people and be thankful for what you have. Pretty universally accepted I think. However, in the way these two maxims are commonly explained, I see contradiction. We’re told not to compare ourselves to other people because it makes us feel inadequate, inferior, and depressed. Doing so plays into the “grass is always greener” fallacy. It’s easy to take the projection of how good somebody has it—always discarding or ignoring anything negative of course—and comparing it to the perceived shortcomings in our own lives. And not only are we told not to compare, we’re often told comparing is fruitless. The reasoning is generally that there are too many unknown variables at play and that each one of us has our own paths. It’s essentially comparing apples to oranges. Sure, that other person may look like they have it all—wealth, beauty, success—but you don’t know how truly happy she is or what her insecurities are or what internal demons she struggles with. We each have our own unique lives that shape along different arches, comparing is bad!
The flip side of that—in order to feel happy and content—is to be happy for what you have. But how is being happy for what you have often explained? I can pull a few lines from my mom as examples. “Be happy for what you have, Daniel, there are a lot of people who have it worse.” “Be happy you have a job, some people are unemployed.” “Be happy you have food to eat, some people are starving.” Sound familiar? We’ve all heard it explained that way. But what’s the action at the core of those statements? COMPARING. This person or that person is worse off than you, so you’re doing well. The problem with using comparing as a way to make yourself feel better is that it legitimizes comparing! You can’t say comparing only works in one direction. That’s the equivalent of saying A equals B, but that B doesn’t equal A. Wrong. If you have B, then you have A too. In other words, if you’re saying that comparing yourself to people less fortunate is a legitimate way to make yourself feel better, well, then comparing yourself to people more fortunate is a legitimate way to present your shortcomings. In even more other words, if you can say “It could be worse!” Guess what? You can just as legitimately say “It could be better!”
What comparing yourself to people less fortunate in order to be happy does is acknowledge that a measurable hierarchy of success and happiness exists. This undermines the reasoning that people’s lives are not comparable because of all of the unknowns and different paths. It basically says that regardless of the variables, there are people flat out doing better than other people. If some successful guy John can say, “well, it could be worse, I could be poor guy Steve.” Could poor guy Steve not say, “well, it could be better, I could be successful John”? Yes, it’s equivalent logic. It doesn’t work in one direction. If someone says her life is not as good because she’s single and all of her friends are in loving relationships, that’s legitimate. You can attempt to console her with hollow platitudes, but it’s the truth. If someone thinks he isn’t as successful as his friends because he makes less money and has an unrewarding job, that’s legitimate. If someone thinks she’s fatter than her group of friends and believes her life would be better if she were skinnier, that’s legitimate. Again, you can console these people with illogical advice not to compare, but it doesn’t matter. It’s like trying to tell a 5’2” man that he’s not short. No, he is short. It’s a fact.
The truest saying about life is that “Life is not fair.” Some people are doing better than other people. Period. And that’s ok. It’s life. What annoys me are the people who try to run in and yell “time out! Nobody is doing better than anybody! We’re just different! Everybody gets brown ribbons!” That’s wrong. It’s not how life works. In real life, yes, some people are doing better than you, and some people are doing worse. Do compare yourself to people you perceive to be doing worse in order to be happy for what you have. But the people you perceive as doing better than you probably are. If it’s something you can work for and achieve, go for it. Put in the work and try to get where that person is. If not, accept what you will not have. It doesn’t mean you can’t be happy. But be realistic and don’t use fake consolation. It could be worse and it could be better.