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OPINION: The precarious pitfalls of conditional contentment


Teddy Roosevelt once called comparison “the thief of joy.” He was right.

The act of comparison isn’t innately insidious. It can spark self-improvement and push us to better ourselves. Nearly a century after Roosevelt’s death, it’s increasingly easy to take the seemingly innocuous act of comparison too far.

The result is a bad brand of conditional contentment, where a person creates a set of self-imposed prerequisites for their happiness to happen. The arbitrary terms for our contentment is usually predicated on a formulaic “if then” statement. If I get x, then I’ll be happy. It’s a sneaky and subtle problem that actively prevents the presence of joy.

In my own experience, playing the comparison game lent itself to a great deal of anxiety and self-doubt because I set absurdly high expectations for myself and was disappointed in my ensuing reality.

For six years, I retroactively compared myself to literary greats. For example, Mary Shelley published the now canonical “Frankenstein” in her early twenties. I managed to convince myself if I didn’t conceive the next great novel in a similar timeline, I was a failure.

As a result, each birthday didn’t bring me any kind of joy. Instead, I ended up having intense, full-fledged bouts of existential dread each time another candle was added to my annual cookie cake. In retrospect, that kind of thinking was silly and nonproductive.

The act of comparison doesn’t always take place with larger-than-life celebrities. It can take place with peers, too. College can be a hotbed of inadequacy, and in the wake of social media’s ubiquity in daily life, it’s easy to feel excluded from a better narrative.

Earlier this year, a new study entitled “Association between Social Media Use and Depression among U.S. Young Adults” emerged. In an interview with NPR, co-author Brian Primack said, “You might watch all these interactions [on social media] where it seems like everyone else is connecting. That could lead to feeling excluded.”

It’s not necessarily Facebook’s fault. While the verdict is still out on whether Mark Zuckerberg is a man or a machine, I don’t think he had entirely evil intentions at Facebook’s inception. Instead, our tendency to play the comparison game stems from how we use social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram.

Namely, our perfectionist propensity to portray only the good things in our life.

Our online presence is often empty because we make it that way. We take time to intricately stitch together a fragmentary piece of fiction for an active, reactionary audience. At the expense of honesty, we put our best digital foot forward.

How do we get to happy again?

We must erase our personal terms for conditional contentment. Instead of playing the comparison game, spend time thinking about the things in life you’re thankful for – perhaps it’s a dog, a significant other or the benevolent breeze you felt as you bounded up the Hill today. Spend less time online and more time being physically present. Don’t worry about the things you can’t change. Accept life as it is.

You’re you, and that’s enough.

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OPINION: The precarious pitfalls of conditional contentment