The Thief of Joy

Several years ago, a friend called me “book-ish” – which felt like an insult at the time. It may have been said both in trust and in jest, and I may have also given the strong reaction that they were hoping to get – but that’s neither here nor there. Anyway, the comment was spot on as I do love to read, and I have since embraced the book-ish description. Over the past several years, I begrudgingly became a fan of using a Kindle Paperwhite (yes, that is an Amazon product, and no, I still have not re-subscribed to Prime!) even though I would still choose a physical book copy any day. You can connect your local library card to the Libby app, and check out e-books from your library to your Kindle, without needing to buy all the books on my “to read” list. All that to say, last week I noticed The Psychology of Money was available to check out without a waitlist, so I started re-reading it. I appreciate Morgan Housel’s observations and story telling– this is one of those books that you glean a few new nuggets from every time you read it.

The first few chapters of his book discuss comparison and the concept of enough, both of which have continued to pop up in recent conversations.

First, comparison. Yep – we all do this, whether consciously or subconsciously. And we all probably know comparing ourselves to others is not a helpful habit. You may have heard the phrase “comparison is the thief of joy” (which I did not realize until now that was a quote from Theodore Roosevelt) and I’ve found that to be true in my life. We often fall into the trap of looking at someone’s life, at least what we can SEE of someone else’s life, and questioning, why our lives don’t look more like that person’s?

  • How does someone younger than me have a house so much nicer than mine? Why did they get a better interest rate on their mortgage than me?
  • Why did I have to have student loans when this person didn’t? How much further ahead would I be if I didn’t have those student loans when I graduated?
  • Why are all the cars in the school pick-up line nicer than mine, and they don’t seem to work very hard? Where does their seemingly endless stream of money come from?

Those questions and comparisons expose the desires within the asker’s heart and distract us from the joy of what we do have. We rarely ever find out the answers to the actual questions but the comparing thoughts continue to barrage our minds. The underlying real internal questions may sound like:

  • Am I behind in my savings? How do I know if I’m behind?
  • Does our family have financial security?
  • Do I have enough? But what is enough?
  • How much luck was involved in the situation I’m envious of?

Housel writes, “Since it’s hard to quantify luck and rude to suggest people’s success is owed to it, the default stance is often to implicitly ignore luck as a factor of success…When judging others, attributing success to luck makes you look jealous and mean, even if we know it exists. And when judging yourself, attributing success to luck can be too demoralizing to accept.”

I would much rather take the credit for any success than admit that luck had anything to do with it. Rather than looking at others to grade where I am in life, or to set my targeted standards of living (which may not be appropriate for my personal financial situation), I suggest we look at others with a posture of serving others instead. What resources or talents do I have, or have access to, that I can offer to this individual? This doesn’t have to be something monetary, either. We all desire connection with one another and to be accepted for who we are. Offering kindness and acceptance to another person oftentimes does more than anything monetary could.

Which leads me to the second topic – the concept of enough. Below are a few more snippets from The Psychology of Money:

  • “Modern capitalism is a pro at two things: generating wealth and generating envy…But life isn’t any fun without a sense of enough.”
  • “The ceiling of social comparison is so high that virtually no one will ever hit it. Which means it’s a battle that can never be won, or that the only way to win it is to not fight to begin with—to accept that you might have enough, even if it’s less than those around you.”
  • “The idea of having ‘enough’ might look like conservatism, leaving opportunity and potential on the table… ‘Enough’ is realizing that the opposite—an insatiable appetite for more—will push you to the point of regret.”

We see this on display especially when scarcity is introduced into a situation. We’re seeing this right now with a baby formula shortage and we saw it at the beginning of the pandemic when people hoarded toilet paper. Stores have to limit our purchases because collectively, we fear the thought of not having enough and err on the side of buying too much – even if it’s more than we could ever need. I write this with so much sympathy for anyone unable to find formula right now – I cannot imagine the stress that adds to an already stressful season of life. I use that example because the idea of enough is easier to grasp with a tangible item, than the intangibles in life.

If (or when) you find yourself with comparisons filling more and more of your thoughts and influencing your goals and desires, I encourage you to switch the question around to recognize what you do have, and take a moment to practice gratitude. We’ve seen an outpouring of people offering baby formula to strangers, which is a beautiful moment of the community rallying behind a common cause. Asking for help and inviting others to participate in your life provides a opportunity for connections to deepen.

Many of us need accountability to even start naming what matters and setting personal goals that are our own and separate from comparisons of other people. The tyranny of the should does not have to reign forever. Impossible demands on oneself cannot be met. We need accountability to stop moving the goalpost forward, which extends the feeling that we never have enough. Please reach out to us if you want to talk about any of the unrelenting standards in your life. We would be honored to partner with you as you unpack your underlying motivations on the quest to reclaim joy in your life.


The content above is for informational and educational purposes only. The links and graphs are being provided as a convenience; they do not constitute an endorsement or an approval by Beacon Wealthcare, nor does Beacon guarantee the accuracy of the information.

Ellen Martin
[email protected]

After graduating from UVA (go Hoos!), I moved to Raleigh for the Raleigh Fellows program where I fell in love with the city, its people, and a fellow Fellow who is now my husband, Wesley. I worked for another wealth management firm in Raleigh for seven years before joining the Beacon team in June of 2021. When not at work, you can most likely find Wesley and me walking our dog, Ollie, on the lovely Raleigh Greenways, or enjoying a cup of coffee and a La Farm white chocolate baguette.