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





Going For ‘Non’ Olympic Gold

Watching the Olympics pricks a motivational itch to do something active. After Wimbledon it’s inevitable that tennis courts up and down the country are booked up, the Tour de France encourages the Mamils (Middle Aged Men In Lycra) to crowd country roads and the New Year sees a spat of people out running. But it generally doesn’t last. The Fitness Industry Association report that 22% of people who join the gym in January will have stopped going at all after 24 weeks and 50% after 6 months.

We know we need to exercise but it can be incredibly hard to get going without some big inspirational push and harder still to keep going. Why is that? Why aren’t we all like Olympians?

Aside from the obvious (e.g. natural capability and extreme drive), practical factors get in the way: a late night at work, a last minute call to go out with a friend, a weekend filled with kids activities and well, just life in general – jam packed with things that have to get done. All of this dramatically interferes with habit formation in the brain, which is something that Olympians don’t have to contend with.

Habit Forming And Exercise

When we first perform a behaviour, say restart a gym routine, it takes considerable conscious effort. Once we have repeated the behaviour over and over it’s triggered and performed in a subconscious area of the brain called the basal ganglia making it automatic, it takes far less mental effort. The problem when we stop and start our exercise all the time is that it rarely becomes a deeply engrained habit. And it’s habit that we need to keep it going regardless of how busy life gets.

Habit Forming Obstacles

  1. Our Ancient Brain

From an evolutionary perspective we are driven to conserve energy until we really need it (e.g. running away from an enemy), so while exercise gives us a buzz, the initial thought of doing any is overlaid by the survival driven part of our brain telling us to sit down for a bit longer. When exercise isn’t a habit, this leads to the internal dialogue between our rational and survival driven brain:

‘I should go to the gym but it’s getting late now, maybe I’ll go tomorrow, I did a good work out yesterday, I should really get on with my ‘to do list’, I’m tired, I don’t feel too well, it’s too cold outside, etc.’

For Olympians, activity is such a strongly engrained habit that the debate doesn’t happen. For us mere mortals, not allowing ourselves to even question whether or not to do exercise is a really helpful approach. I put exercise in the diary then do it before I can start debating the pros and cons.

  1. Lack of Identification

Olympians ‘are’ the sport they do (there’s no question over whether Mo Farah is a runner). While for non-Olympians hours of daily physical activity is not a practicality, incorporating exercise into how we see ourselves removes another barrier. This is why athletes tend to so effortless switch from one sport to another, they have an implicit belief that sport is who they are e.g. Victoria Pendleton from cyclist to jockey, Chris Hoy from cyclist to racing car driver.

I’ve always been physically active so see myself as sporty, but I’ve always hated running. For the past year I’ve been running at least 3 times a week, which has taken a huge mental effort and has definitely not felt like a habit. But, recently I was in a sports shop looking at the running stuff and this sudden realization came over me – I am a runner (obviously not like Mo Farah, but as far as a local running group is concerned). I’ve shifted my mindset from running being something other people do, to something I do. This mental shift makes forming a habit much easier.

  1. Working Against Our Preferences

Although the media made a big thing about Gold Medalist Adam Peaty not liking water when he was tiny, ultimately it was him who decided he wanted to train as a swimmer. You can’t force a child to dedicate hours of practice to something they really don’t want to do, and the same principle is true of adults.

Starting a running regime if you hate running is going to be far harder than finding something you really enjoy and making that your exercise of choice (I realise I’m contradicting myself, but I’m extremely stubborn so not a great example.)

  1. Feeling Like a Failure

 It may sound obvious but taking small steps to reach a goal is much more effective than aiming to be as fast a runner as Jessica Ennis in your first 4 weeks then giving up because you can’t do it. Setting realistic sub-goals, stretching but not beyond our reach is critical.

This also links to Emotional Resilience because even taking smaller steps it’s inevitable that we’ll fail: we’ll do a slower run, we’ll have a busy week where we don’t manage to exercise, we may get injured, all putting a spanner in the works for habit formation. This is when we need to get back up and try again.

Murray had so many near misses at Wimbledon in the years leading up to his success. If he hadn’t believed that ultimately he would make it he could of retired, but he didn’t, he kept going.

  1. Doing it Alone

Although an introvert may prefer a solitary exercise schedule, we are all in some way social by our very make-up, and even if we are introverts we need encouragement and feedback from other people. Trying to do something alone creates obstacles because it works against our natural make-up. Olympic athletes are surrounded by teams of coaches which plays to a need to belong. They are also consistently competing, which not only provides feedback on their own performance but plays to another deeply embedded driver to compare ourselves to other group members. Being with someone else also provides a distraction which is incredibly helpful in getting on with something we may otherwise give up.

Overall it’s about finding what works best for you and what your personal derailers are, the things that prevent you from getting into good exercise habits. Do it and you too could be winning Non Olympic Gold.


Links and References:

The Power of Habit, Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg

Yin, H.H., Knowlton, B.J. (2006)The role of the basal ganglia in habit formation, Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7, 464-476