• Dr. Vin

How Comparisons Kill Joy

Updated: Aug 17



PROBLEM: Comparison causes anxiety that leads us away from the joy of creativity. In comparing we are spending time judging our self and others.


BACKGROUND: I heard about the following research study on the radio. Teens were given supplies and told to make a collage in 15 minutes. They were divided into 2 groups. One group was told it was a contest and they would be judged on a scale from 1(best) to 10 (worst) and the winner would get a valuable prize. The other group was just told to be creative in making a collage.

Which group (as judged by a panel of four) do you think made the more interesting, creative, and impactful collages? I thought maybe the incentive for a prize may have energized the first group and that they would have performed better. But I was wrong. The second group did better work. Why? Because they were left to follow their own heart as they created and did not use half their brain comparing themselves to others for the sake of winning. The first group likely spent their energy wondering, “Is this good enough to win?” Or looking around they might have thought, “Oh, that looks better (or worse) than mine.” “I don't want to be on the bottom!” The second group could dream and think about what they wanted, trust their vibrant imaginations and make something they enjoyed, unencumbered by comparison.

Not to say some healthy competition doesn’t spark productivity because it can in many venues, such as sports or business. But comparison can cause so much anxiety that you have less energy for creativity.

For example, I was in an art class a few days ago at a table with three other women. We were all doing watercolors of hydrangeas. A new woman who had never done watercolors before came to the class to take a break from her houseguests for a few hours. Even though the process was new to her, she smiled and kept saying, “This is so relaxing.” By contrast, the woman sitting next to me chatted anxiously all through class, asked us questions on what she should do, stared at everyone else’s work and criticized her own work constantly. At one point the new woman serenely said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” The art teacher agreed and made a comment that everyone does unique work, which is part of the fun of painting.

I looked up the quote to see where it came from. “Comparison is the thief of joy” is from Theodore Roosevelt and argues that comparing your work, your life, or whatever else will only serve to make you unhappy.


SOLUTION: Some comparison may be necessary in order to learn what the standards are in a given task or setting. The problem comes when we take it too far and lose our own voice. I have found in writing that joy comes from using my own voice to communicate something I feel passion about in a way that a reader can grasp. So the solution is to look around, see what the norms are, learn the lessons of the game, focus inward, take a breath and then run onto the court on your own steam, full of your passion, uniqueness and creativity. A unicorn (which is the art piece of this blogpost) is associated with a vibrant imagination. Without needless comparing, we can let our imaginations shine and our own voices soar.

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