Comparison is the thief of joy

Two of my very favorite people on campus (and you know who you are!) turned me on to the quote by Theodore Roosevelt, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Let me repeat it for emphasis. Big and bold:

Comparison is the thief of joy.

I repeat it because it has been my personal experience. But also because it is true, I suspect, for your students. More often than not, I’m afraid.

From the moment students set foot on campus in their first year, they are starting at the beginning again. They don’t come here with a cadre of ready-made friends and cliques from the past 12 years of school, so they start afresh to find their place at Wake. Students (of all years) are constantly looking to their peers on campus – how do they dress? how do they act? what do they do? what don’t they do that I shouldn’t either? how smart are they – is it way smarter than me? are their contributions in class better than mine? are their grades better than mine? how physically attractive are they? who is richer than me? who has more friends? You get the idea.

Not only are our students comparing themselves to their peers on this campus, by the virtues of Snapchat and Instagram [and the various and sundry social media platforms this old grey lady doesn’t yet use], they can compare themselves to their friends from high school, friends at other colleges, etc. Who seems like they are having a better time at school than me? Whose lives seem easier, happier? Why does this friend have an easy romantic life and I don’t? And on and on it goes.

And the more you try to compare your life with everyone else’s, the more likely it is that you will be robbing yourself of joy.

The truth is that no one’s life is perfect, no matter how perfect it appears to be. We put on our game face and hold ourselves together when we go out our front door to meet the world each morning. But we all have struggle, we all have insecurities, we all have problems at some point or other. Even people who seem to have everything – beauty, brains, wealth, loving families, good health, a great job, whatever – they have problems too.

I was talking about this very thing to a student who is very dear to me. For this student, the struggle of comparison was real, and it was beginning to manifest in real unhappiness. Constant comparison was not making this person any happier. (Ironically, I am sure that someone else was looking at this student every day with admiration or envy, because my student friend is a great human being with lots of wonderful qualities.) We talked about some options of how to break the Comparison is the thief of joy cycle: consider talking to a counselor in the University Counseling Center to work through some of the anxiety of constant comparison and to boost self-esteem; take a long walk at least once a week (more if possible) to clear the mind and focus on the physical world of nature; think about our Mindful Wake offerings, because mindfulness and meditation can be wonderful ways to appreciate the present moment and not stew on the past or fret about the future. I also wrote the quote out for this student to keep as a reminder.

My student friend was kind enough to give me an update and to tell me that things were much better and that those techniques had been helpful. This person also urged me to keep sharing the message that comparison is the thief of joy because there are other students who might need to hear it.

One of the conversations I remember having with my late P’92 father when I was in high school happened during the Olympics. As we watched all the amazing triumphs and athletic feats, my dad said to me “Betsy, there is always going to be someone who is smarter than you, or can run faster than you, or makes more money than you. Only one person in the world can be The Best at what they do. It’s OK not to be The Best, since it is nearly an impossible feat. Just be the best YOU can be.” He did not say this to give me license to slack off and not try. He said this to set realistic parameters of what is possible, and to take some of the pressure off me.

So if your student is inclined to be playing the comparison game, gently redirect that energy when you can. If comparison is the thief of joy, perhaps the antidotes to that are looking at people with realistic eyes, acknowledging we all have problems and flaws, and also looking at ourselves gently and with love, cultivating our own skills and talents as best we can, but letting go of an unrealistic ideal of perfection.

One of my friends shared some Instagram pictures from Positively Present, which is a terrific site for “positivity, awareness, and self-love.” Here are a couple of their graphics that seemed to go with this theme. Enjoy.

Categories: advisingcampus life


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