‘Comparison is the thief of joy’ is a quote attributed to US President Theodore Roosevelt, but we’ll bring it up to date by swapping the word ‘joy’ with the word ‘happiness’, which seems to be something most people are looking for in their lives. But what does it mean? Well, it’s a direct challenge to our very human behaviour of comparing with others in order to make judgements about ourselves. And the quote suggests that the very act of doing this can risk sapping our pleasure in life, even eroding our happiness bit by bit over time. So, how we can get the best from this natural behaviour and maybe build some new habits in the process.
So a little info on social comparison theory – first put forward about 60 years ago by a social psychologist called Leon Festinger. The theory goes that we humans are social animals that make judgements about the world and about ourselves often using concrete facts and by making subjective judgements where we’re not sure about the facts. This often leads us to rely on how other people are doing/looking/running/wearing/getting paid to see how we’re doing, relatively speaking. It’s a basic human drive…we do it to make decisions or to influence our mood. There are two directions of comparison apparently – upward comparison…where you seek out people for comparison who are better or better off than you in some way. And downward comparison, where you look for people who are worse or worse off than you in some way. And unsurprisingly, unless you’re doing it to set yourself a target or look for a role model of something, upward comparison generally tends to make you feel worse about yourself. And downward comparison generally makes you feel better about yourself.
So bringing all that in today’s world, it’s always been the case that there have been lots of downward comparison and upward comparison examples for us to pick from, but today there are so many more, thanks to the internet and social media, which really typifies the importance for people of social comparison as so much of the content we see relates to comparison – numbers of likes, coolness of pictures, number of comments, apparent awesomeness of life being lived. So the dangers of this in terms of our well-being are that we may keep picking people to compare ourselves with who are unrealistically ‘superior’ to us in some way (like pop stars, movie stars, sports stars, world leaders) and then we make a whole bunch of assumptions about what we think we see in them and their lives that we think makes them superior, and before we know it, we’re in some pretty depressing territory when we evaluate our own lives/annual pay/car/hair/abs/holiday choices/pets against the best of the best in each of the above categories. And since everyone is in the business of using social media to propel themselves another rung up the social comparison ladder, your chosen points of comparison can get out of reach pretty quickly and that can hit you where it hurts.
So the point here is to beware social comparison, it can hit you right in the ego and if your self-esteem is feeling a little fragile, that may be really unhelpful for your overall sense of well-being and even mental health.
So, what can you do to avoid comparison stealing your happiness…here are top 4 tips:
people to aspire to be and to compare yourself with unless you’re genuinely committed to following one of those career paths. So if you want to pick points of comparison, pick people a little closer to home, a little more realistic and relevant to your life. And try not to make so many assumptions about the apparent awesomeness of other people’s lives versus yours AND be appreciative of the awesome aspects of your own life, possibly even using a downward comparison, with others less fortunate than you, to feel better, or at least more realistic, about your lot.
So 4 things there for getting control of the comparison monkey: look for objective evidence, be realistic about who you compare with, be kind to yourself and get good at being in the now.
For a long time, there have been myths about what makes a great leader and they boil down to some pretty messed up assumptions about what the greatest leaders do and who they are. Including:
This sort of ‘strong’ leader approach doesn’t work and it’s dangerous. Instead, a discussion needs to be had about how leaders can build a brand around who they really are, rather than who they feel they should be, creating an environment where people feel more positive, more committed and more excited to come to work every day.
Let’s have a think about some inspirational leaders from recent times: Nelson Mandela, Sheryl Sandberg, Angela Merkel, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs. Are they all-rounders with similar personalities, achieving great things alone, directing others with a force of will around their own vision and masking their weaknesses? No! Each one of them is profoundly different in terms of context, strengths, personalities, but all of them effective and successful in their own way, also continuing to be effective across different times and places and contexts. And also all of them with their own specific weaknesses or vulnerabilities.
There are leaders (even some with a somewhat controversial moral compass) who have followed the strong leader model over the centuries, and they were all pretty successful in a particular context at a particular time in their own way: Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher. Some from more recently might be Donald Trump, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk.
But, as is probably clear, in most cases, the strong leader model gets them in the end – maybe because their weaknesses get exposed in a new context but they’re not willing to acknowledge it, or because they think they can do it all and they stop listening to others (their customers, their country, their cabinet, their employees), or because they get so focused on their own vision that they become a pompous dictator that people don’t relate to anymore.
To be an effective leader today, you’ve got to be honest with yourself and with other people and you’ve got to stay curious, humble and open-minded.
For anyone in a leadership position, anyone working with leaders or anyone perhaps moving into leadership for the first time, don’t try and be a strong leader or encourage others to be, but instead:
Find your passion, what positive legacy you can leave in the world, that transcends you and becomes a vision that others want to follow
Find your strengths – the things that make you positively different and master those so that you can be authentic in the way that you interact with other people and lead people
Recognise what you’re not great at – and work with people who are great in areas that you’re not, also stretching them to do more than they thought was possible – so you become the creator of geniuses and not the genius
And finally recognise and own your vulnerabilities, your weaknesses, even sharing these as appropriate so that others are more willing to own what they’re not great at too.
This is a big topic so for now, take the time to reflect on those points about effective leadership and what steps you can take to create a positive, energising work environment for the people around you. See you soon, stay curious, keep learning, we’re all a work in progress!