4 Strategies to Tame the Comparison Engine in our Head

I turned 27 couple days ago. For some reason, the comparison engine becomes particularly active during birthdays. I felt compelled to check up on my friends. There were a few pursuing MBAs at prestigious universities. Some investment bankers, management consultants and startup founders. One of my childhood friends got married recently. Some were even buying their first homes.

You know what happens next. My brain spun out a series of stories. The comparison engine used the success of my friends as evidence of my failure. Each story questioned by worthiness.

We can’t help it. Social comparison is built into our genes. We do this in an attempt to make evaluations of ourselves. It is not a new phenomenon. We did it before social media, before the internet, before electricity, even before language.

For our ancestors, social status provided survival benefits. The higher up the ladder, the greater chance of procreation and passing down their genes. We constantly compared ourselves to others in the tribe to figure out where we fell in the hierarchy. We did everything in our power to climb the ladder because survival was at stake.

Comparison provided a valuable source of motivation and growth for our ancestors. However, in the modern world the balances have flipped. More often than not, comparison puts us into a tail-chasing frenzy of self-doubt. The software that once provided a survival advantage has now become a bug that destroys our peace of mind.

“At the root of our challenging relationship with our own brains is the fact that it’s a device that was assembled, tested, and (mostly) completed hundreds of thousands of years ago, in a vastly different environment with vastly different requirements. Features that were once advantageous now drag on our capability for happiness.
Despite its immense processing power, the human brain is still spitting out solutions for equations that have little to do with our modern world — and less to do with happiness. Because of its evolutionary origins, the world your brain deals with is ancient, murky, and terrifying. So are its strategies. If we are to use this device properly, we need to adapt its programming to match its new operating environment.” ~ Solve for Happy by Mo Gawdat — Chief Business Officer at Google X

The comparison engine is programmed to create stories that makes us crave what our friends have. There will always be someone with a bigger paycheck, better car and fancier house. No matter where you are in life, the comparison engine will find someone whose accomplishments make yours look insignificant.

Your brain produces these stories, as a biological function, to serve you. However, today they have become an impediment to human flourishing. To escape the trap of comparison, we first need to recognize the stories of the brain for what it is.. just stories.

1) Recognizing the Storyteller

We tend to take our thoughts very seriously. If a story pops up and tells us about what’s going on in a particular situation, we’re likely to consider it an objective truth.

But it’s not. It’s just your left hemisphere putting together yet another narrative to make sense of the world.

In the early 1980’s, Gazzaniga found out that the left brain takes in information and makes up a story. Here’s how it works: A thing happens, we react, we feel something about it, and then we go on explaining it. Sensory information feeds into an explanatory module — the storyteller.

We have all experienced this, remember the time you sent a text to a crush and she did not reply for a while. The left brain — the storyteller — spins out hundreds of stories questioning our worthiness and lovability. You see it at work too, one dismissive glance from a coworker can turn into “I knew she didn’t like me”.

The narrative part of the brain takes everything we perceive and turns it into a story that makes sense.

It does not care about factual accuracy or evidence. The story is often based on incomplete information and filled with our cognitive biases.

Even Brené Brown, who leads research on shame and vulnerability, cannot escape the torture of the storyteller:

My husband, Steve, and I were having one of those days. That morning, we’d overslept. Charlie couldn’t find his backpack, and Ellen had to drag herself out of bed because she’d been up late studying. Then at work I had five back-to-back meetings, and Steve, a pediatrician, was dealing with cold-and-flu season. By dinnertime, we were practically in tears.
Steve opened the refrigerator and sighed. “We have no groceries. Not even lunch meat.” I shot back, “I’m doing the best I can. You can shop, too!”
“I know,” he said in a measured voice. “I do it every week. What’s going on?”
I knew exactly what was going on: I had turned his comment into a story about how I’m a disorganized, unreliable partner and mother. I apologized and started my next sentence with the phrase that’s become a lifesaver in my marriage, parenting and professional life: “The story I’m making up is that you were blaming me for not having groceries, that I was screwing up.”
Steve said, “No, I was going to shop yesterday, but I didn’t have time. I’m not blaming you. I’m hungry.” ~ Brené Brown

Notice a pattern here, the stories are always driven by negativity — by fear and anxiety. Fear was one the most advantageous survival trait for our ancestors in the savannah. When you hear the roar of a lion, fear takes over your mind and helps you run to safety. So the genes that prioritized fear and anxiety survived. While the genes that prioritized positive emotions extinguished itself from the gene pool. What we are left with is a fearful, anxious mind that is always on the lookout for the next incoming danger. Danger is anything that reduces your survival prospects including losing social status.

We all have an inaccurate view of reality. Accepting that we perceive the world inaccurately can be a tough pill to swallow. But once we recognize the games of the storyteller in our head, we can take action to direct our thoughts more productively.

You can remind yourself that what it’s telling you is not the truth. It’s just a story to help you navigate the world.

And if that particular story isn’t helpful to you, then switch it out. You get to choose what to believe. Choose a reality that makes you happier.

“Reality is overrated and impossible to understand with any degree of certainty. What you do know for sure is that some ways of looking at the world work better than others. Pick the way that works, even if you don’t know why. Don’t hesitate to modify your perceptions to whatever makes you happy, because you’re probably wrong about the underlying nature of reality anyway.” ~ Scott Adams

2) Switch The Narrative

Whatever thought you had in your mind before you saw the above unicorn was erased the moment you saw it. You cannot control it. The brain consumes every single piece of information presented before it. You can use this knowledge to override the narrative in your head at any moment.

You can prime your brain to focus on anything you want just by bringing it into consciousness. When your brain gets sucked into the darkness of upward social comparison, you can snap out of it by switching to a downward social comparison.

According to social comparison theory, not all comparisons are equal. Upward comparison happens when we compare ourselves to people who are better than us. Downward comparison judges our experience by comparing it to people who have it worse. One pushes us into the vortex of self-doubt and other makes us grateful for our blessings.

Keeping up with the Joneses is part of the human condition, however, we can choose our Joneses. We can counterbalance our innate tendency for upward comparison by frequent downward comparison.

“Once a negative thought takes hold, it can become hard to dispatch. An untamed brain needs a thought to cling to. And often enough, removing a thought leaves behind a vacuum that gets quickly filled by a thought from the same mood spectrum — another negative thought. This is why when you are in a dark place it can seem like the whole world is going to collapse. You tend to be consumed by one negative thought after another. If only you could manage to break the cycle! Filling that vacuum with a happy thought ensures that there is no room for another negative one to come in.” ~Solve for Happy by Mo Gawdat — Chief Business Officer at Google X

On a recent train ride, I noticed a woman in scrubs drenched from rain. Caroline (not her name) was rocking back and forth to the rhythm of the train, but her eyes were fixed on her Facebook app.

Scroll, scroll, scroll.. Stop!

She was staring at a picture of a woman in bright yellow bikini, sitting at the beach with a mojito in her hand. She stared at the picture for few seconds then lifted her gaze to stare out at the rain. I could see disappointment in her eyes as she let out a deep sigh before looking back at her phone.

I am not sure what went through her head at that moment, but if I had to guess it would look like this:

“She is enjoying life in Cancun and here I am standing in a packed train, exhausted from work.
This sucks. My life sucks. I wish it was different.”

She would have reacted differently if she choose the following narrative instead:

“She is enjoying life in Cancun and here I am standing in a packed train, exhausted from work.
But it could be worse.
At least I have a job to take care of my family. I am glad that I do not have to walk to home in the rain, the warmth of the train is comforting. I have it better than most other people, I am grateful for that.”

Caroline had a choice to be resentful or grateful in that moment. To do an upward or downward comparison. Either way her circumstances would not change. However, in one scenario she is happy and in the other she is miserable. She had the ability to change the narrative but instead she chose to believe the storyteller.

All of us have that moment in our daily lives. We can step out of the trance of upward comparison and choose a reality (which is just as true) that makes us happier.

Think about it, you have plenty of things to be grateful for. If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, you are more blessed than the million people who will not survive this week.

If you can read this post, you are more fortunate than 3 billion people in the world who cannot read it at all.

Use downward comparison when you find yourself in a losing battle against the comparison engine.

Maybe, positive thinking is not your cup of tea, how about rationality?

3) All or Nothing

What people present to the outside world is an edited version of the reality, this is especially true with social media. As Steve Furtick explains, “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”

Everyone is flawed whether it is Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or even the Dalai Lama. But when the storytelling engine spins out a story, it conveniently leaves out their flaws.

Caroline saw the picture of her friend on the beach and the storyteller made up a story of the amazing life she has in Cancun. The storyteller does not talk about her delayed flight or the stolen purse or the lost baggage. None of it matters to the left hemisphere. It sees a picture and makes a story about it. And we fall for it every single time.

Maybe your friend has a million dollar startup. But he may have sacrificed his relationships, vacations and health while working 100+ hours per week. If you envy his wealth, you should also be fine to pay the price he payed for it. If you want to become Steve Jobs, you should be fine to abandon your child because it hurts your professional career. You cannot have one without the other. You cannot just pick and choose one part of your friend’s life that he has carefully edited out to the public. It is all or nothing.

4) Know your metrics

Another useful strategy is to ask yourself if the motivations and desires of these “successful” people align with yours?

Oftentimes we assume that their goal are the same as ours. The tragedy is that we end up measuring ourselves with the metrics that invariably lead us away from our goals. If you disregard your personal metrics, you will look back at you life with regret. You will find a humiliating gap between your actual self and your desired self.

“Oh yeah, there are a lot of ways to make money. But I chose my way instead of their way for a reason, namely because I tried it already and hated it. I don’t want what those people have and I don’t want to live and act like they do. So why the hell am I using them as a metric for success?
For you, maybe you do work on Wall Street for money. That’s perfectly fine. Maybe the most important thing to you is family. Awesome, so that’s your priority.
But what it means is that not only do you have to start measuring yourself by family-related metrics, you also have to stop measuring yourself against all those other people with different priorities.
So why do you do what you do? That’s the question you need to answer. Stare at it until you can. Only then can you understand what matters and what doesn’t. Only then can you say no — can you opt out of stupid races that don’t matter, or exist. Only then is it easy to ignore “successful” people, because most of the time they aren’t–at least relative to you, and often even to themselves.” ~ Ryan Holiday

Know your metrics. Freedom and travel are my core values. I have been fortunate to live in 7 countries over the past 14 months. I have created a lifestyle that lets me work from where I want, when I want. When the comparison engine took over on my birthday, I paused for moment to check if their values aligned with mine. I soon realized that if I want what my friends have, I need to give up on the values that I hold close to my heart.

No, Thank you.

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.” ~ Marcus Aurelius

The storyteller is powerful, it controls our lives. We are constantly talking to ourselves judging the quality of our experiences. We create narratives based on incomplete information. We often accept them as the truth, forgetting that we have the power to reject them at any moment. We can call its bluff and choose a narrative that makes us happier.

We can compare up or compare down.

Your happiness depends on where you’re focusing your attention. It is context dependent and you can choose your context. Choose wisely.