The Five Thieves of Happiness: Comparison

For the third thief of happiness in our series, we focus on comparison.

A brief recap for those who are new: the five thieves of happiness are harmful mental thought patterns that prevent us from living a joyful life. These destructive patterns cause us to stand in the way of our own happiness and prevent us from leading a fulfilled life.

Dr. Izzo, who coined the term “Five Thieves of Happiness,” argues that to find true joy, we need to learn how to identify and “lockout” these thieves by rebuilding our thought patterns and living a more thoughtful, compassionate, and happier life.

The Five Thieves of Happiness are control, conceit, comparison (or coveting), consumption, and comfort. You can read the introductory post here, control here, and conceit here.

Keeping Up with the Joneses

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” — President Theodore Roosevelt

Out of all the happiness thieves, comparison may be the most omnipresent.

Think about the first time you remember feeling jealous of someone else — maybe you were envious of a childhood friend who got a shiny new toy you didn’t have. The desire to want something you don’t have (or the envy you feel when someone else does have it) doesn’t just apply to kids — it sticks around through adulthood, too. While you may not care as much about toys today, you’ve probably found yourself battling jealousy about other things, both material and immaterial.

It’s all too common to envy others for things we don’t have — you may envy someone’s relationship, career success, material possessions, self-confidence, appearance, or any number of things.

Some studies have found that up to 10% of our thoughts involve some comparison. In psychology, this is known as Social Comparison Theory: the idea that we determine our own worth based on how we stack up against others. In today’s hyperconnected, online culture, social comparison is at an all-time high. We’re bombarded on every social media platform with the highlight reels of other peoples’ lives, which can often make our own feel quite inadequate.

This constant act of comparison can have harmful side effects in our personal and professional lives.

Persistent feelings of jealousy or envy can contribute to:

  • Increased sadness, anxiety, and/or depression
  • Feelings of insecurity
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of anger or resentment

When you’re constantly focused on what others are doing with their lives, you’ll miss out on what’s happening in your own.

Here’s the thing: there will always be someone out there in the world who is smarter, richer, stronger, or better at something than you are. Chasing after these things will be an indefinite pursuit of happiness — you’ll always be searching for it, but might never find it.

Instead of focusing all your energy on what you don’t have, you’ll be happier if you focus instead on the things you do have.

Finding Happiness Through Gratitude

“Coveting takes away our capacity to be grateful.” -Dr. John Izzo

Regularly practicing gratitude is a scientifically proven way to overcome feelings of envy and experience more happiness. It’s a simple practice: you just have to acknowledge — meaningfully — the good things in your life.

Gratitude has been shown to:

  • Improve personal relationships
  • Increase happiness
  • Boost contentment
  • Improve physical and mental health

Small exchanges of thankfulness can go a long way towards building a happier life. When you appreciate others for what they do for you and appreciate your own accomplishments, you’ll see the world in a different, more positive light.

How to Overcome Constant Comparison

“The only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday.” — Anonymous

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to cultivate happiness with gratitude and other positive practices. One of the most common methods is starting a gratitude journal. You could use the old-school method of writing in a physical journal or try an app like the Five Minute Journal. You could also just keep a note in your phone that you add to every time you think of something you’re grateful for.

Your gratitude practice will be easier if you create a routine. For example, I spend a couple of minutes every night before bed writing down a handful of things I was grateful for that day. I try to find small things to write down on tough days, like the fresh cup of coffee I drank before work. Other days, I have many moments that made me grateful. It changes day to day, but I’ve found that the more I write in the journal, the more things I notice each day that inspire gratitude. Now, not only do I sleep a lot better, but I look at the world a bit differently than before.

If you need ideas, try these sample prompts in your own gratitude journal:

  • I am grateful for these people…
  • Three good things that happened today were….
  • One thing I learned today was…
  • Something I’m looking forward to is…
  • I was able to help someone today by…

Ultimately, it’s totally up to you what you write in your journal. After all, it’s yours! The most important thing is consistency. Practiced regularly, your journal can help ground you and keep you focused on the good parts of life rather than getting caught up in the bad.

Here are a few other tried and true methods to cultivate more happiness with gratitude:

  • Perform at least one small act of kindness every day
  • Avoid or limit negative interactions on social media or in-person
  • Stand in front of the mirror and repeat positive affirmations (perhaps that feels a bit too-Stuart Smalley, but it works!)
  • Meet up with someone who always supports you and thank them for being in your life
  • Give heartfelt recognition where it’s due
  • Practice gratitude meditations

But a cautionary note: It is critical to practice gratitude meaningfully while being fully present and intentional. You get out of it what you put into it. I’m sure we’ve all had times where we made well-being a tick box exercise. Perhaps we meditated while mentally creating a to-do list, or practiced yoga while watching Netflix. Or, as my fourth-grade Catholic school teacher used to say, ‘When you go to church, do it with reverence. Otherwise, it doesn’t count.’ Make your gratitude practice count.

Although practicing gratitude may not always provide instant relief when jealous emotions arise, if you practice it regularly; eventually, you’ll retrain your brain to avoid harmful thought patterns like coveting.

Stay tuned for our next installment on the Five Thieves of Happiness to learn more about recognizing and overcoming excessive consumption.