Comparisons

I remember the day my old physics teacher pointed out of the window, at the neighbouring building.

“How many bricks are in that wall?”

We made guesses. All wildly different. He didn’t have a clue either. Then he pointed at another building.

“OK, look at that wall too. Which wall has the most bricks?”

Straight away we all pointed at the same wall. No doubt at all. He was illustrating that our brains are lousy at absolute measurements. Shown a light bulb, we can’t accurately say how many candela it is, but two bulbs and we can detect the slightest difference. We can’t judge length to millimetre accuracy by eye either, but if one string is a millimetre longer than another, then we know instantly. Even our measurement techniques – like a ruler – amount to comparing things to something else we already know the size of.

I remember reading of a psychology experiment. Would you rather earn £25,000 when everyone else is earning £20,000, or £30,000 when everyone else is earning £35,000? From memory it was a bit better disguised than that, but not much. Most people opted for the £25k.

This is the heart of all judgement. We are evolutionarily hard-wired to be good at it. It’s a useful skill if you’re picking berries or hunting mammoths. The problems start when we apply that judgement in fallacious ways. I’m better than you. You’re better than me. He’s better than him. The grass is always greener.

Worse, this isn’t as good as it used to be. You don’t have the same options and energy you did 20 years ago, so now everything is just shit. Grumpy Old Man syndrome. Two of my internet datees claimed

“It’s important to have something to look forward to…”

Well what’s wrong with now? Comparisons with past or future will bite you on the bum and at some point there won’t be anything to look forward to, will there? And where are the past and future anyway? Show me. Point to them. They exist only in your head. And then there is the trap of comparing things to what you think they should be. Well, they just aren’t, OK? They are what they are. There is no entitlement, really.

People sometimes ask me to explain mindfulness to them (as a concept) and if I had to pick one thing it would be quit comparing. This moment is all you have. Enjoy it. It doesn’t need to be any different.

Detractors argue that this is defeatist. Personally I think there is a basic dilemma between holding out for what is ideal, and accepting what you have. We all do a bit of both, and each have their place for sure, but on balance people do too much of the former and not enough of the latter. And the former is often premised on impossibilities. Disney comes in for some stick on that front but they have been getting better. The shelves at Waterstones are still heaving with over-romanticised chick-lit though. Also, research shows that a more mindful accepting approach increases happiness. As does the practice of waking up every day and just being grateful. A lot of “self-help” techniques don’t really have that kind of evidential backing.

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