I admit I am not always happy. Most of the time, but not always. Over the last few months, I embarked on a journey of changing unconscious behaviors, incorporating new habits and constantly leaving my comfort zone. I am sure, I am not alone. Over time, I noticed how I gradually became happier. A lot happier. Not a quick fix solution and no instant kick of joy but a source of goodness that has become a constant in my life — one I wouldn’t want to miss anymore.
While I could see how all the small changes added positive aspects to my life (or took away negative ones), I initially didn’t realize that my former feelings of unhappiness and inadequacy were built on the same foundation: comparison.
Either in sense of comparing myself to ideas, concepts or other people, within my own stream of thoughts or triggered from the outside; or in a way that comparison hindered my progress until I managed to flip it around and use it as ‘fuel’ to fire me up. This process didn’t come naturally to me. It took a lot of work, awareness, and willingness to commit to change.
As I started to dig a little deeper, turns out, there is an entire theory in psychology build around this! The Social Comparison Theory. This research area is concerned with multiple aspects of comparison and ultimately the positive but also negative effects on our well-being.
For me a sign that I am not alone with this issue and I bet, if you ever encountered feelings of unhappiness, you will find yourself guilty of at least one of the following.
At first, I discovered my tendency to compare my current self with my past self. To give an example, a few years back, I lived abroad for a little while and had the best time of my life. I constantly met new people, got to experience another culture, and found it overall exiting and inspiring. Fast a few years forward, I find myself stuck in an ordinary 9 – 5 office job. No excitement, no challenges, no real prospect to move up the career ladder anytime soon. I was devastated and my head was always stuck in the past.
How did I get here?
For months I didn’t manage to free myself. Always complaining but never in action. Until, many self-development books later, I conquered my fears and turned my past into a source of inspiration. Now, the comparison was the one thing that got me going: I wanted to move abroad again. Make new experiences. Get ahead in my career. Meet new people. Always with that image in mind, how incredibly happy I was back then, I actually found a way out. Moved abroad and forward.
Some people can’t rid themselves of a long finished relationship, others miss the freedom of their youth. Whatever it is, as long as we spend our precious mental time in the past, we won’t be able to take the necessary steps in our present to create change.
Let your current self-image match, or ideally even exceed, the positive state of your past.
Maybe, you're not wasting your time thinking of prior stages of your life but you get yourself caught up in an idealized future version of yourself. Oh that one day, when you finally get that job offer — you will feel so fortunate! If only you were there already. But what if you’ll never get there? What if you’re not good enough? Your boss won’t ever see your true potential? What if, 10, 15 years from now, you will still be stuck behind the exact same desk working the exact same mundane tasks?
Having dreams and goals to work towards to is one thing, ditching the present for doomsday fantasies another. Comparing yourself to a future you should turn your frown into a smile. A ride on the dream roller coaster that inspires and excites you, an image that makes you work even harder. It should not end in an apocalypse that mirrors your present, aged by X amount of years.
Take advantage of your daydreams: turn them into an inspirational pathway that guides your present actions.
My all-time favorite social media app used to be Instagram. Used to be, as every time I logged in, I would get warped into an endless cycle of scrolling, tapping, following. Repeat. I could spend hours at a time in these digital spheres. At one point, there was no denying anymore how seriously this habit affected my productivity, sleep, social life, and yes — my level of happiness, too. As much as I loved scrolling through posts and getting to peek into strangers lives, it also made me incredibly sad.
Why can’t I travel the world all the time? How can they afford all those expensive things? Is my life too boring? Should I have done and achieved so much more by now?
Looking at the very filtered, and probably mostly fake, accounts of others left me jealous and insecure about my own reality. At one point I decided to delete the app from my phone. Truth be told, I was shocked when I realized how many times a day I unconsciously went back to the spot where the squared icon used to be, only to find a void. Never before had I realized the true extent of my dependence on the digital input.
Fast forward a few weeks and I couldn’t care less. I re-installed it once only to delete it almost instantly again. I still love the images, the videos, the community built around it but I cannot deny how much richer my life is without.
Comparing ourselves with the fake social media accounts of others can’t serve us in the long run. In fact, studies have shown how the exaggerated use of such platforms can lead to increased symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Go cold turkey and quit it once and for all? No need. It is part of today's society and a restriction and more intentional use might be all it takes. I still like accessing Instagram once in a while through my laptop. However, I did eliminate the habitual and addictive aspects of mindlessly scrolling on my phone.
Everyone else but me.
Social media was not the only way of how I liked to get my daily dose of discouraging comparison. In fact, this issue existed long before we started sharing our seemingly luxurious vacations on Snapchat & co.
This study from 1992 asked 94 college students to record details of their social comparisons. The result? No surprise, a measurable decrease in well-being.
I admit I am guilty of that, too. I was always interested to see how I hold up to my siblings, friends, and colleagues. Do I fit in? Am I doing things in the right order? Should I be further along with my career goals, my relationship status, academic success? Mentally trapping myself in endless loops of discouraging thought patterns.
The answer to all of them:
It doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter if your current achievements and life goals don’t fit into social norms. If you want to get back to university at age 57, by all means, do so. If you want to put career before kids, then that's your choice and there is nothing wrong with that. Everyone's life is different and there is no ‘perfect’ order to tick off milestones, or a set number of accomplishments that must be reached at the very end of it. There has never been a greater time to do and become anything and anyone we want!
Step back from unhealthy forms of comparison and chose happiness and a freed mind instead. And maybe, just for once, simply don’t give a f*ck.