Comparison is the Thief of Joy
“It’s no Niagara Falls, but it’s still nice.”
That statement, offered jovially and on some level intended to express appreciation, had the effect of extracting me from the wonder of the moment – the smell of the crisp, clean rainforest air, the sound of the water rushing down the falls, and bright green color of the trees surrounding the falls. With the utterance of that innocuous comment, I was instantly transported from the Blue Mountains in NSW Australia to Canada. Not physically of course (I haven’t figured out how to teleport yet) but mentally.
For a just a moment, in my mind’s eye I felt myself standing next to Kevin watching the water gushing down the Niagara Falls at night, as the lights lit the falls neon blue, then pink and green. The thunderous sound of the water crashing interrupted any attempt at conversation, so we watched the falls in silence.
I blinked and found myself back in the Australian sunshine, standing next to Kevin and Lauren, and feeling robbed of the full experience of the waterfall we had hiked 5K through the bush to see. In that moment I experienced the same thing that prompted Teddy Roosevelt to proclaim “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Our brains naturally seek to categorise the world. Imagine a mom scurrying around a young child’s room tidying up, putting the things on the floor away – like with like. Books go on the bookshelf, stuffed animals in the net in the corner, clothes in the hamper in the closet, toys in the brightly colored plastic bins and boxes that are most suitable. That’s what’s happening in our brains automatically when we experience something through our senses. We think, oh this experience is like ____ and then we file them away together, just like how things get filed on a computer hard drive. Kevin couldn’t help make that comment because when he ran the program “waterfall” his brain, advanced operating system that it is, retrieved that file and in it found Niagara Falls. Seeing them side by side, he automatically compared the two.
I’ve been spending copious amounts of time defragmenting my psychology—continuously reminding myself every experience is different. This would not have been an adaptive strategy for my ancestors, because in order to survive they had to learn what was safe and what was dangerous, which meant classifying which sensory experiences are similar to other ones. This saved them from having a stomache ache from potentially poisonous fungi that look alike more than once.
Fortunately, the world we inhabit is every different to the one they did. In our world, with millions of people suffering from anxiety and depression, one of our biggest dangers is our own thoughts. We think we know what an experience is like, so we file it away before we even experience it fully. It’s tragic because when we learn to stay in the present moment, through mindfulness brain training, we begin to find novelty in what we previously assumed was familiar. I’ve discovered this is the path to finding joy in every experience. No, Leura Falls is not Niagara Falls, but it’s still every bit as inspiring. Only when compared against a different version of the same concept can it be found lacking. What a powerfully transformative lesson to experience on that hike! And to think, I just went along because I wanted to see a waterfall…
I slept through many lessons before realising what a brilliant teacher Life truly is. Are you paying attention right now? Though it may bare a resemblance to others, this blog post is different than any other blog post you have ever read before. In the words of Ram Dass, BE HERE NOW.