Comparison is the Thief of Joy

On Saturday I had the pleasure of speaking at Red Smart Women’s Week. Having done my talk I took the opportunity to go along to a session on ‘feeling good about your use of social media’, hosted by Brigid Moss. Her guests were Katherine Ormerod and Lucy Sheridan who both have first-hand experience as social media influencers.

Lucy’s focus is comparison, an area that fascinates me from a professional standpoint. We all compare ourselves to others, but social media allows this to get out of hand. Lucy candidly spoke about her trials with “Jealousy and envy of other people” which stemmed from social media. From the outside what you see is a funny, humble, engaging and authentic lady, but we all know what goes on inside and what we see from outside are two entirely different things. She went through a period where she really struggled and says she has to keep herself in check with social media even today.

So, what is the psychological root of this envy we all feel – envy which is exacerbated by social media? Evolutionary psychologists explain that feelings such as envy enabled our ancient ancestors to evaluate status within a group. Having higher status meant access to better resources (e.g. food, sexual partners, social alliances, safety) and therefore better chances of survival. The negative emotions felt when comparing someone similar but who had ‘more’ was a motivation to readdress the balance. For example, if person ‘a’ had more food than person ‘b’, the envy felt by person ‘b’ would motivate them to find more food, meaning an equal chance of survival.

Then and now, this comparison is most significant amongst peers. Research carried out by neuroscientists Ramachandran and Jalal show that if we compare ourselves to someone such as our neighbour who happens to have more money than us and someone like Mark Zuckerberg whose net worth is $62 billion, most of us feel more envious of our neighbour. Why? Because our brain has evolved to think that there’s ‘no point in being envious of’ Zuckerberg. He’s off the scale either in ability or luck so no amount effort will result in us becoming the richest person in the world.But if our neighbour is more wealthy than us, someone who has a similar background, social status, opportunities etc., we feel envy to motivate us to have the same. The problem is that today the envy is not fuelling a life and death situation so becomes a far less helpful emotion.

This unhelpful emotion becomes even worse when we add in social media. Online everyone ‘seems’ closer to us than in reality they are so suddenly everyone becomes a peer. As a result we compare ourselves to and become envious of far more people which starts the negative downward spiral faced by comparison on social media. This is made worse because we’re often trying to close the gap on something unattainable a) because the person we are comparing ourselves to is not from a similar background to us (e.g. Hollywood star who grew up with film star parents in LA) b) because most images on social media do not display reality (i.e. a snapshot of perfection rather than the struggle, pain, failure and every day ugliness that goes on behind the scene). The more primitive areas of our brain don’t know that we’re striving for something that we cannot achieve or something that’s unrealistic, which greatly amplifies the negative emotions felt and in turn produces powerful feelings of inadequacy.

So what can you do when you feel envy:

  • Try to notice the envy – what or who you are envious of, observing the emotion rather than engaging with it (more on this technique in my book and books by Russ Harris). Being self-aware can help you to stop and put it down when it becomes too much rather than getting sucked in.
  • Try to limit your social media usage. Sounds obvious but it’s really important. To quote Arianne Huffington “Technology is amazing, but it needs to be put in its place, and we need to set boundaries so that we have time to connect with ourselves and to build deep connections with others.” Lucy and Katherine have more tips on this (websites below).
  • On that point – connect with others in real life. Make the effort to call a friend or to speak to someone in person and really concentrate on what they say. It will move you away from feelings of envy as well as bringing you back into the real world and evoking far more powerful and helpful emotions relating to the more advanced areas of the brain.


Read Lucy and Katherine’s websites for more on having a healthy relationship with social media.

Lucy’s website:

Katherine’s website:

Defining You which is currently 99p on Amazon UK. It’s also available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK. Elsewhere it’s available on, and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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Harris, R. (2011). The happiness trap. ReadHowYouWant. com.

Ramachandran, V. S., & Jalal, B. (2017). The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy and Jealousy. Frontiers in Psychology8, 1619.

Ekman P., Friesen W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 17 124–129

Ramachandran V. S. (1998). Why do gentlemen prefer blondes? Med. Hypotheses 48 19–20

Quote: Teddy Roosevelt





Your Success in 2018 and the Green Eyed Monster of Others…

Staring a new year in the face brings dreams of success both big and small: from losing a couple of pounds to drinking less, running a great 10k time, starting a business, being promoted – our new years’ resolutions cover a multitude of possibilities. The hope that they hold is both exciting and exhilarating. But with success comes envy, and sadly it’s our closest peers who will feel most unsettled by our achievements and we by theirs. This unspoken truth can leave us confused – we want our friends to be happy yet these horrid and poisonous feelings creep in. Bitterness, envy, resentment, disdain, threat or feelings of inferiority all come with the territory of someone else’s success.

But these emotions are natural and don’t make us ‘bad people’. Evolutionary psychologists explain how they enabled our ancient ancestors to evaluate status within a group. Having higher status meant access to better resources (e.g. food, sexual partners, social alliances, safety). So, the negative emotions felt when someone similar succeeded was a motivation to readdress the balance and to do better yourself. Say for example, a friend had better spoils from hunting, the discomfort would motivate you to take action so that you and your family had an equal chance of survival as theirs. Importantly, this comparison mattered most when it was amongst peers, rather than someone in another tribe. This is why our friends may feel more uncomfortable about our success than people who are only acquaintances.

Fast forward several thousand years and these emotions are complicated by cultural responses. While countries such as the USA hold success up as something to be celebrated (e.g. people such as Oprah Winfrey are heralded in the media as ‘The Name of Success’) in the UK, we are equally celebratory about someone successful failing (e.g. when Branson’s balloon didn’t make it around the globe the headlines read Branson’s ‘glorious failure’). A cousin who worked in the USA and has now returned to Australia has noticed the same cultural contrast and mentioned something called the “Tall Poppy Syndrome” described as “a tendency in Australian society to try and cut down people who are considered to be too successful or prominent (cutting the tall poppies down to size). Australians generally don’t like others to do too well.”[1] Gossip, disapproval, discrediting or undermining others in the way we belittle attempts such as Branson’s, all serves to bring people back down to size. Every day examples may sound like: “Do you know that she only lost 4lb because she cut out all carbohydrates, that’s so dangerous and there’s no way she’ll be able to maintain it.” or “He only got promoted because he went on that trip with the boss and had his ear for 48 hours.” I’m not suggesting that the USA is free from these tendencies nor that every Brit or Australian detests the success of their peers but culture certainly plays its part in exacerbating the issue.

So, what do you do if you feel a bit of envy creeping in:

  1. Celebrate your friends’ success – it will help take away the sting.
  2. Recognise that it’s normal (and does not pose a threat to your survival).
  3. Decide what to do: unhelpful responses – engage with or suppress the emotion.  helpful responses – acknowledge and accept the emotion, leave it alone and move on. Or use it to motivate you to achieve equal success
  4. Acknowledge that outward success shows no indication of the inward life that someone is leading – their personal struggles, trials and tribulations. Take for example Robin Williams, his numerous awards indicate someone who would be envied by his peers, yet he was a troubled man who took his own life.
  5. Celebrate your friends’ success (yes again)!

And when facing the envy of others:

  1. See negativity directed your way for what it is – a display of a primitive emotion and a need for that person to make themselves feel better.
  2. Try not to inadvertently flaunt your success to people who are struggling to achieve. This may seem obvious but in the excitement of our own achievements we can forget to stop and think about how other people may be feeling.
  3. Keep going – negativity can make you feel like you want to stop, after all that will make any scorn go away. You may fear you’ll lose your friends or subconsciously believe that you need to moderate how far you go. But just because others haven’t achieved what you have that doesn’t mean you should hold yourself back. Your real friends will stick with you however high you soar. Shoot for the stars!

Happy New Year and may you achieve all you set out to in 2018!


N.B. While celebration of success in the USA has its positives it also has more negative connotations such as blaming those who do not make it for not trying hard enough. 

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[1] Oxford Dictionaries blog

CHAPTER The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy, Sarah E. Hill and David M. Buss pp. 61. In Envy: Theory and Research by Richard Smith (2008)