The Trouble with Comparisons


But patient! All will yet be well; for I assure you, my dear friend, you were right: since I have been obliged to associate continually with other people, and observe what they do, and how they employ themselves, I have become far better satisfied with myself. For we are so constituted by nature, that we are ever prone to compare ourselves with others; and our happiness or misery depends very much on the objects and persons around us. On this account, nothing is more dangerous than solitude: there our imagination, always disposed to rise, taking a new flight on the wings of fancy, pictures to us a chain of beings of whom we seem the most inferior. All things appear greater than they really are, and all seem superior to us. This operation of the mind is quite natural: we so continually feel our own imperfections, and fancy we perceive in others the qualities we do not possess, attributing to them also all (those talents) that we enjoy ourselves, that by this process we form the idea of a perfect, happy man, — a man, however, who only exists in our own imagination.

If you can get past the somewhat formalized language, you might recognize the sentiments of the 24-year-old writer’s fictional character Werther. The quotation comes from The Sorrows of Young Werther by the German writer, poet, philosopher, and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; first published in 1774.

Almost 240 years later, we still make the very human mistake the sensitive and high-strung Werther described: overestimating others’ abilities and happiness, while underestimating our own. We compare our insides to their outsides — the way they look and sound — and feel the worse for it. And now that those others can photoshop their lives, our self-image really doesn’t stand much of a chance. But, Werther (and Goethe) have a solution: not isolation, which tends to make things feel worse, but getting back into the game of life and achieving satisfaction by expending our best efforts in some productive direction; thus demonstrating to ourselves that we are usually wrong in thinking everyone else is actually better than we are.

For all the technological differences between 1774 and 2013, what is important in life is pretty much the same: love, work, and friendship. Good luck, good health, and a few dollars don’t hurt either. Surrounded as we are by things Werther couldn’t have imagined — cars and iPhones, air conditioning and indoor plumbing — we risk thinking that all of that makes our lives fundamentally different from the predecessors we compare ourselves to; that somehow, Werther and Goethe wouldn’t understand our superior way of living.

But, just maybe, the truth is otherwise. The quotation suggests that human nature really hasn’t changed and that we easily get caught up in the flash and dash of contemporary life, while the pursuit of happiness is just the same as ever. The Ancient Greeks and Romans knew just as much about heartbreak and success as we do. All the new fashions and new gadgets are like trees in front of us, blocking us from seeing that the forest has not changed a bit.

As the French like to say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”

The top image is Fernand Leger’s 1921 Le Petit Dejeuner. The italics in the above quote are mine.