Many question whether their life is on the right track. This is due to comparisons, with others or themselves. Theodore Roosevelt famously said that “comparison is the thief of joy.” He could well be right.

Comparison number one is with other people of similar ages and backgrounds to ourselves. There is a certain life trajectory, promoted by various sources, with which many people fall into line. Milestones such as meeting a life partner, buying a house, having children and becoming financially independent have become yardsticks by which people assess their living situation. In turn, they lend themselves to comparison.

If “everyone else” is doing things that I’m not, am I off track?

The second comparison is between real life and the life we think we should be living. This could be a life we thought we would be living by a certain age, or that we think we should be living based on what we believe our passions to be and where we think our priorities lie.

“It feels like everyone has amazing jobs and I still don’t know what I want to do with my life.”

“When I was twenty-one I assumed I would be married with kids by now!”

“I’m sure that painting is my true passion, and that I should be an artist for a living… I just can’t seem to get around to picking up a paintbrush.”

Leon Festinger’s Social Comparison Theory explains that we are driven to assess our worth by comparing our abilities and opinions with those around us. It is most sensible to compare ourselves with someone with similar identities to our own; just as we wouldn’t compare the writing ability of a two-year-old with a ten-year-old, it is unwise to try to compare our lives with people who are not extremely similar to ourselves.

I would caution you to beware of assuming that someone is similar to you, and therefore worthy of comparison. Without in-depth conversations there is no way that you can know whether your beliefs and capabilities are on par, so try to avoid torturing yourself with a comparison that isn’t reasonable.

Comparing yourself to yourself is slightly more difficult to overcome. Having an ideal to work towards can be a good thing: goal-setting and keeping eyes on the prize is what makes people successful. However, it is counterproductive to be hold yourself to account for a lifestyle you once thought you should have but has become irrelevant or impossible in reality. Give yourself a break and congratulate yourself on all you have achieved instead.

Finally, for those of us who have worked out what they want to be doing but aren’t. This is called Cognitive Dissonance: acting in a way that doesn’t match your thoughts. Again, give yourself a break — it’s a win to have even worked out what you want to be doing! Rather than chastise yourself for not doing the things you think you should, make a plan to get there. Write down what you want to be doing, and then “backward map”—that is, write down every step you need to take. Either you’ll get there (hooray!) or you’ll realize you really and truly can’t be bothered, and can get going on finding your real purpose.

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