Comparison Is Life’s Primary Thief of Joy

Two cars compared side-by-side
A beat-up car juxtaposed with a fancy one.

Imagine a 30-year old man in the US making $13 an hour working a blue collar job. Let’s call him Guy. Guy is married with two kids. He lives in a small apartment. He owns an iPhone and leases an old car. Between his wife’s part-time job at a restaurant and their frugal spending habits, the couple can make ends meet. By the standards of many, Guy would not be considered a success in the US. He works a job that isn’t stimulating. He lives in a modest house and drives a car with no style. He has no money for savings, retirement, and travel. Guy unfavorably compares himself to the people around him and is discontent with his life.

Now imagine that same 30-year old man living in Jordan, a developing country. Guy’s $13 an hour puts him in the upper 10% of national workers. The fact that he is married and lives alone is a huge testament to his economic success and distinguishes him from most people his age. He has a smart phone unlike many of his peers and is wealthy enough to drive his own car rather than rely on public transportation. Guy favorably compares himself to the people around him and concludes that he is a success in life.

I have seen this illustration play out a thousand and one times. The average individual in the US enjoys far more material prosperity than European kings in the age of monarchy. While felt exceptionally good about themselves for their material advantages, many Americans are dissatisfied with their economic status because it does not measure up to their peers or to society’s expectations. Human beings have this strange tendency to compare themselves to other people when assessing how they should feel about their situation. And they usually compare themselves with those closest to them.

Most often what holds us back in life is not our environment but our perception. You’ve heard it said before, perception and reality are two sides of the same coin. What I am not saying is we shouldn’t strive to better ourselves and take advantage of every opportunity available in our environment. What I am saying is that today, while that process is still unfolding, we should take a moment and be grateful for what we already possess. If you cannot resist the urge to compare yourself, why not start with the man or woman in the mirror.


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