Over 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau observed “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation”. This would suggest that mental and emotional suffering is a common and constant state of life. What has changed, though, is we now have the ability to do something about it. Now more than ever we have available to us tools for self-improvement such as education, technology, and psychological treatment. That being said, just because we have more ability to better our lives doesn’t mean that we will actually do the work. Self-actualization, the process of reaching one’s potential, is like anything else that is worthwhile in life – it takes hard work. There is something happening, though, that discourages this work.
What I see happening in society is an increase in anxiety and depression that is sourced in an over-focus on what others think of the Self. The introduction of social media (i.e., Facebook) has, paradoxically, created a comparison trap for us. The comparison trap has always been around, but it has become almost unavoidable in our modern age. The more we see what others are experiencing, the more we critically examine our own lives. We easily interpret someone else’s highlight reel as everyday life, and contrast this to our own lived experience which is often just boring by comparison. This is the tyranny of the peak experience; the expectation that life can and should be a constant stream of interesting, exciting, and joyous experience.
The expectation for a life constantly filled with peak experience (moments of joy and elation) is a guaranteed path to disappointment. When we scroll through social media, though, this is what we see – a version of life with all the suffering and normal moments edited out. This is bound to happen when we are getting information about people without actually knowing them personally. Then, the more we engage in promoting our own image (our highlight reel) online the less we are actually knowing ourselves or being present for our own day-to-day existence. This kind of thinking and behavior is leading to an increase in unhappiness. Comparison is the death of contentment.
The problem is made worse in that the constant comparison and disappointment leads to a feeling of anxiety and hopelessness. The thinking goes like this: “What if I’ll never be able to (fill in the blank) like that person.”, or “My (fill in the blank) is not as good as theirs.” What do you fill the blank with? Your kitchen, car, body, performance, vacation, your kids, your marriage? How can anyone engage in this kind of thinking without feeling bad about themselves or seeing their life as not good enough?
What can be done about this? One obvious answer is to quit comparing and “stay in your lane”. Focus on what you can do in reaching your own potential instead of looking too long at what everyone else is doing with their potential. Author Brené Brown talks about this problem as a shame problem that can come from the fear of being ordinary rather than “the best” at something. The cure, then, is self-acceptance instead of self-rejection. Timothy Keller, pastor, says this: “Instead of thinking less of yourself, think of yourself less”. Jordan Peterson, psychologist, advises “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today”.
Stop looking at yourself too critically and stop comparing yourself to others. Instead, do the work set before you that is your responsibility. Decide to take care of yourself and see what you can do to live and grow. Stay spiritually and socially active in ways that don’t require a screen. This is how you attain contentment, which is the death of comparison.