04 July 2013

Positive Comparison

Completely unrelated image - Source

I have written a post on comparison a few months back, explaining how I think we should fight our tendency to compare ourselves to each other, past or future situations to be happier. I still believe this to be very true, for comparison is a great source of unhappiness as it makes us dissatisfied with our current situation. But I have read an interesting piece about the benefits of comparison, that I wanted to share with you.

As I mentioned already, it is quite impossible to make ourselves stop comparing completely. After digging a bit around this, it turns out imitation is even embedded in our genes. With what scientists call "mirror neurons", we are wired to imitate other human beings, so we can learn new things, fit socially... Then, it is only natural that we also tend to compare each other as well.

Since we can't really help it, can we turn comparison into a positive exercise instead of letting ourselves become unhappy and frustrated?

Comparing to worse situations

Of course, the idea is not to rejoice from other people's misery or anything, but we do tend to always compare a part of ourselves with someone who gets this part better - money, physical possessions, job...  What about doing it the other way around?

For example, if I tend to be unhappy about something, say, the small size of my appartment, yes, I can compare it to the much bigger one my friends from smaller cities live in for a cheaper rent than mine. Or, I can make a positive comparison by thinking of all the good sides of my appartment: it is very cute with wooden floors and a view on a typical Parisian cour intérieure, plus, I live inside the city so I can enjoy all the benefits of Paris, and many other advantages.

Comparison as a goal to move forward to

When I think of my role models when I was a child, in the end, they didn't make me unhappy as in "they are so great, I'm so lame", they made me dream about things, they motivated me to move forward and carve my own life.

I'm going to get slightly personal here, but the main role models of my childhood are my grand-uncle (is that how you call your grandfather's brother?) who worked at the French embassy and traveled all around the world his whole life, and my aunt who left the French countryside to become University teacher in England.

These two persons carved my dreams for travel, curiosity about the world and different cultures, ambitions to leave the countryside and aim for a job that would make me travel a lot (which, if you read my blog regularly, you will know I did achieve, especially with all my travels in June).

So in the end, this comparison helped me becoming a better person, and work toward a better, happier life for myself.

I think that, in the end, any difficulty can be turned into an opportunity to grow. Maybe that sounds like self help bullshit, sorry about that. But I think the example of comparison is a good one: either we can let ourselves drown into negative comparisons and let them fuel a low self esteeem, or we can try to turn our natural tendency to compare ourselves to other human beings into something positive.

What do you think? Have you had role models in your life who gave you dreams and made you move forward in your life? What is your take on comparison?


  1. Interesting post. When it comes to people, I think I tend to feel inspired, as opposed to feeling a need to compare. I think the idea is the same as what you are saying, just a different choice of language.

    I am trying to think of the role that comparison plays in my life. I have a tendency towards negative comparisons, I am going to pay attention now and see if I can see some positive ones.

    Your grandfather's brother is your great uncle - at least that is what we say in my family! In general, "grand" in French becomes "great" in English, except for your parents' parents, who are "grandparents" in both languages but with a different pronunciation :)

    1. I guess inspiration, like imitation, are a sort of comparison in a way - they use these "mirror neurons" and you have to compare first and see the differences before being inspired. Maybe, I'm not sure, but it feels like inspiration is a form of positive comparison, a factor of motivation or something.

      Ah I thought "grand-uncle" did sound like foreigner's English haha. I'll keep that in mind. This blog is such an opportunity to keep learning English!

  2. My friends and I call each other out on "first world problems" quite regularly so that we keep a sense of perspective on whether we really "have it tough". I think comparing ourselves to acquaintances who are say, making tonnes of money, is kind of looking for problems where there may be none. It might be a motivating factor for some to compete and do better but I don't function that way. Like you, I prefer to set my own goals.

    I used to dream of a job that would allow me to travel as well but my career has taken a rather home-based turn! It's funny because I grew up inspired by journalists who travelled the world to tell stories. I think those opportunities are still open to me though and although I am satisfied by my job, it does not fulfil some of the goals I still hope to achieve.

    1. Ah that's a good idea, rationalizing by calling it "first world problem" and think about how much worse some people probably have it. It is also a way to counteract negative comparison I guess.

      In terms of career, I think it isn't over until retirement (if any). I'm a firm believer in opportunities and shifts along life, so I am sure that you are gathering all the experience and good things from your current job, and that you will find a way to get a job with more travel one day if it is really something you aspire to.

      It is true it doesn't make any sense to compare ourselves to very rich people for example. In the piece I read (in the magazine Clés, that I love, too bad it is in French), they say we don't really compare ourselves to people very different than us (very poor or very rich people for example). We tend to compare to people with a similar situation (socially, culturally...) For example, even though I've been in Japan for a year, I never really compared myself to Japanese salarymen who work 15 hours a day. But I have a tendency to compare myself to my colleagues or friends who are globally in the same socio-cultural group. But this is also a good way to turn negative comparison into positive one, because since these people are quite similar to me, I can find things that are "better" as much as I can find things that are "worse", if it makes any sense.

  3. I actually didn't know about mirror neurons, very interesting! And yes, I fall into the comparison trap all the time, although hopefully I've gotten better, and your tips will certainly help!

    I'm struggling with it a little now, since I've just been able to get back to weight-lifting after a sports injury, and funny enough I'm comparing myself to how I was last year before my shoulder injury (and maybe a little bit the other people in the gym...).
    I just keep having to remind myself that "shit happens" and I was stronger then because it was different circumstances, nothing more, nothing less.

    1. Ah, sports is a very competitive domain, so comparison is difficult to avoid! I am using Nike + a lot, and tend to feel bad when my friends run many more kilometers than I do. Also, I think the body forgets very quickly. I almost didn't go to the gym in June because of all these travels, well, when I went back yesterday... Suffice to say I'm suffering this morning. It is a bit discouraging to think all 2013 efforts can be ruined in one month.

      But, there is another way to see it. First, when you train again after stopping, you don't start exactly from zero, you tend to get back in shape much more quickly than someone who never trained before, so you build you health capital each time you train in your life, no matter if you were in better shape one year ago or not. Besides, you could also compare to further away in the past, when you weren't in shape yet, and think you still have gathered some health capital since...

  4. Haha, like Lin I am quick to consider whether I am having a "first world problems"/"my diamond shoes are too tight" kind of situation whenever I feel like complaining about something. I think my last one was "my new desk at work is so big my headphones can't reach from my MacBook to my ears, boo hoo". Ridiculousness!

    I've never thought about it before, but I actually do positive comparison quite a lot. Both in the way that I compare my current situation with where I was a year or two ago (so much progress!), and that I simply consider how incredibly lucky I am. I'm 27 and I have already reached so many of my goals, and as for the rest of the goals, well, the only person keeping me from reaching them is myself and my own priorities.

    I can totally relate to Erin and her sports injury, too. I was SO strong and fit a year ago, but then depression hit, and then my crazy allergies, and then asthma. I will be pretty much starting from scratch again come August. I'm still motivated to go for it though, and I can't wait to get back in shape again :)

    1. "My diamond shoes are too tight", I love it! I tend to rationalize by listening to what some acquaintances of mine tend to complain about. I don't know how to explain it, but Paris seems to harbor a different type of middle class than smaller cities. A bit more posh or bourgeois, and sometimes they complain about things so ridiculous, when I listen to them I remind myself never to become like that. So, when I start complaining about something, I remember that kind of people and think "no, this is not worth complaining about".

      It is actually great that you nurture positive comparison with your past self! The exercise I sometimes do is imagine I meet myself as a child and ask: "are you happy with how I turned out?" Because that way I compare with my own goals and ideals, and not with other people around me whose choices and circumstances are different than mine. And it works very well at cheering me up when I'm a bit down: Child Me loves my adult life!

  5. Exactly the topic I have been pondering over all month. So glad to see a post on this. I want to give it more thought because every time I form an opinion on comparison versus inspiration, I feel as though my thoughts change. On one end it seems as though weaker minds fall to the negative aspect of inspiration (turning inspiration into comparison into envy, etc) but then maybe its not about weakness. So i don't know. Still have some digging to do...

    1. That's a very interesting subject to think about! I was very surprised to read that imitation and comparison are embedded in our genes. So I guess it's not about weakness. But I wonder what situations make us compare negatively - and undermine ourselves, and what situation makes us inspired and moving forward.

      In my case, I am trying to actively stop myself when I start entering negative comparison loops, but people I compare myself to are not necessarily those who inspire me. So another question: what makes a person inspirational? Why would you feel inspired by one and not another? Good questions to think about indeed!

    2. Great questions Kali! I think it would be extremely helpful for us to stop and jot down who inspires us and why. Who we admire and why. Or who we aspire to be like and why. When it comes to this trendy debate of bloggers and envy, I think actually taking the time to write out our thoughts on each individual would curb the negative comparison loop quite effectively.

  6. Replies
    1. Thanks! I saw you changed yours too, very nice and sleek :)