And a ratio
Iwas recently at a talk given by a brave and wise man named Gulwali Passarlay. He talked about being sent away from his homeland of Afghanistan at the age of eleven by his own mother to escape the horrors of war. He explained how he spent the next couple of years being shuttled helplessly between countries by smugglers while feeling lost and dehumanised.
Gulwali finally arrived in the UK, where he had to fight for his right to an education; the authorities refused to believe he was only thirteen years old and meant to be in school. With the help of some of his teachers and his foster family, he learnt English and ended up acquiring two degrees, including a Masters in Public Administration. Last year, he set up a social enterprise called My Bright Kite to help support young refugees in the UK adapt to the entirely different culture they find themselves forced into.
As I listened, a part of me felt admiration for Gulwali’s courage and resilience.
Another part of me, a voice that’s all too familiar and especially obnoxious, began to compare and contrast the way in which he had faced unimaginable adversity with the way in which I complain about my daily struggles. “Why are you not doing more with your life?” said the voice. “You’re wasting your privilege. How on Earth would you have overcome the problems Gulwali has encountered in his life, if you can’t even deal with much smaller issues?”
Maybe that’s all right.
It can be hard to avoid comparing ourselves with others when much of everyone’s life and work is on display.
What we can do is temper all the comparison with regular celebration. By this I don’t necessarily mean cutting a cake everyday, although I would never begrudge you that interpretation of my words, should you choose it. I do mean that we can choose to find something each day to celebrate, no matter how small.
When, at the start of a tuition session, the parent of my student brings me a Turkish coffee, “just because”, I can marvel at how thoughtful humans can be. When a seemingly unfriendly stranger at the gym breaks into a smile and starts a conversation, I can happily acknowledge how I am often wrong about people. When I find dairy and gluten-free chocolate vanilla cheesecake (on sale!) at the supermarket, I can silently bless food suppliers who cater to those with dietary issues — and lick the spoon clean of creamy, crumbly goodness.
Whether we finally manage to clear the five-week old mess in our bedroom, make some progress with a creative projects or prepare a healthy lunch, we can choose to delight in this fact. Arguably, we should — though we may not realise it, every one of us faces multiple challenges and distractions and temptations every day, so managing any healthy or meaningful actions in spite of these obstacles is cause enough to rejoice.
Feeling satisfied with your life comes down to the amount of comparison and celebration you allow into your life, and the ratio between the two:
The less you can compare yourself with others and the more you can celebrate with them (or by yourself!), the higher your contentment score.
There are of course, many things in life that are difficult, if not impossible, to celebrate. Leave aside the huge, really tough stuff like chronic illness and heartbreak. Sometimes it just takes an acquaintance telling you about their amazing new job, caring partner and fulfilling volunteer work to make you feel relatively inconsequential — and then feel petty for coveting their happiness.
My life will never be as remarkable as that of Gulwali Passarlay’s — but then, our lives were never meant to look the same. Social media incites us to try and become watered-down clones of each other, but the world would be a strange place if that was all we aimed for.
I don’t know if and when I’ll be able to significantly reduce how much I compare myself to other people. I do know that when I pause for a moment and shift my attention towards something — anything — that I can genuinely take pleasure in, I feel a lot better for it.