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89. Making Comparisons Work For You

In 2001, Professor Windy Dryden, an eminent cognitive therapist, wrote a book called 'How to make yourself miserable'. I read a few reviews of this book when deciding if I wanted to buy it, and one of them was excoriating. 'This is a dreadful book', wrote the disgruntled reader. 'It tells you how to make yourself dissatisfied and unhappy. Why would anyone want to do that?'. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that this person had sadly missed the point of the book, they nevertheless posed an important question? Why would anyone want to do that? This week's tip explores one of Dryden's top tips for making yourself miserable - comparing yourself to others - why you do it, and how you can turn it around to your advantage. The well-known phrase 'comparisons are odious' would seem to be timeless. It is not absolutely certain who first coined the phrase, but the earliest recorded use of it appears to be by the 15th century poet, John Lydgate, in his Debate between the horse, goose, and sheep, in which he said: 'Odyous of olde been comparisonis. And of comparisonis engendyrd is haterede. It was later used by several authors, notably Cervantes and Christopher Marlowe. In an ironic variation Shakespeare used it in Much Ado About Nothing, in which one of the characters says 'comparisons are odorous'. Making comparisons is something that seems to be built into our reptilian 'lack or attack' brains. Our old brain can spot a threat to our status in a flash and in no time we can go from feeling perfectly good about ourselves to feeling perfectly useless. Not surprising then that one of Dryden's hottest tips for making yourself miserable is to compare yourself regularly with people who have more than you. More money, more success, more charm, more brains, better looks, better marriage, nicer house, more friends etc etc. The Oscar season has recently been upon us and there are few better opportunities for this activity. Whether you would like to be young and beautiful and talented like Jennifer Lawrence, an acting legend like Meryl Streep or Daniel Day Lewis, a modest genius like Ang Lee, or to have the unbelievable voice of Adele, there are few occasions that have more potential to remind you of your mediocrity. And yet there is a part of us that loves to admire people. Perhaps it's because it gives us hope in some way, a chance to dream of what and who we might be. Or maybe we derive some vicarious sense of worth through our worship of them. However perverse it seems to be to make these comparisons, if we keep doing something you can be sure that there is a payoff of some kind. The interesting question is, why do we often compare ourselves with people who have more than us, but rarely with people who have less? I have just come back from a tour of Cambodia and Vietnam and, I can tell you, there are many opportunities there for this latter activity. I would definitely not like to be the men whose job it is to take the husks off coconuts for ten hours every day. In temperatures of 35 C and upwards, they stand bent over a vertical spike and hurl a coconut at it hard enough that it breaks through the husk. Then they insert their fingers into the hole and use all their strength to peel back the hard shell. Then they pick up another, and do the same thing, And another, and another. Their body aches, the sweat runs off their bare backs, and they get paid about 6USD a day. Nor would I like to be one of our guides, whose father was taken away by the Khmer Rouge when he was two, never to return. Nor would I like to be one of the children in this famous photograph, taken during the Vietnam war, or any other adult or child living in a war zone. Nor would I like to be another one of our guides, whose wife has been diagnosed with Hepatitis B and has been prescribed expensive drugs to be taken for a year, but who doesn't know whether to trust the doctor because most of the doctors in Cambodia are corrupt. Nor would I like to be a girl in Vietnam, where fathers are only pleased if their wife produces a son. No, thank goodness I have a fulfilling and interesting job, and live in a peaceful country, where women are valued, where health care is free and where doctors are largely competent and trustworthy. Try this: Complete these sentences, where x = a quality/possession/achievement, and y = a person: I wish I had x like y does I wish I was more x, like y is I wish I had achieved x, like y I wish I could x, like y Notice how you feel. Now answer these questions: Thank goodness I'm not x like y Thank goodness I don't live like y Thank goodness I have x, unlike y Thank goodness I don't live in x, like y Notice how you feel. How to make yourself satisfied and happy? Do less of the former comparisons and more of the latter! Have a good week! with love Anita