Nicola Mostyn plays the comparison game
I met my friend for drinks the other day. She looked thoroughly miserable.
“What’s up?” I asked, ordering us a cocktail.
“My life sucks, that’s what,” she retorted. “Listen to this. Yesterday I bumped into an old school friend on a flight. I asked about her and the old gang, adjusting my seat to the reclining position in preparation for a good ol’ gossip. That’s when she dropped the bombshell: she’s the producer of a well-known sitcom, Jane is dating a Premiership footballer and Becky’s just sold a painting to Charles Saatchi.
“Of course,” my friend continued bitterly, “I smiled and hoop-la-ed accordingly, and then, when my school chum asked what I’d been doing with my life, I pretended to find something fascinating happening in my complimentary peanuts. What could I say? That I’m a bra fitter at a department store? That I’m pathologically single? That the closest brush I’ve had with fame was being ogled in a lift by Noddy Holder? Well, actually, I did say all that and then we spent the rest of the flight in uncomfortable silence. Now I feel like a big fat failure. And to think I used to keep these girls in roll-ups and revision notes! But then,” my friend mused hopefully, “she did look like she’d had a nose job, so I’m thinking maybe she’s not so happy after all.”
Welcome, gentle readers, to the comparison game, a pursuit many of us have been playing professionally since our mid-twenties, obsessively checking our fellow players’ age/career/relationship status/BMI like participants in a colossal game of Top Trumps.
For the best results, the game should ideally only be played against strangers, a move that allows you to envy a person’s spectacular house, fascinating career, perfect spouse, shampoo-ad hair and ability to pull off city shorts whilst firmly believing such good fortune to be the result of an Oxbridge education, a vast inheritance or a close personal friendship with Dame Judi Dench.
Alas, when one is faced with people once equal to you in intelligence, social class, postcode and acne, such excuses rather swiftly disappear. On the down side this puts your life into tedious perspective. On the up side, your shared background suggests there’s no reason why you too can’t be air kissing the BBC, fending off footballers with cocktail sticks or living out any number of parallel existences that don’t entail the word “demicup”.
But then, fulfilling one’s potential is such a laborious task. That’s why most of us find it considerably more time-effective to simply rip success apart instead. Hence: “She’s successful but bulimic”, “He’s married but gay”, “She’s terribly gifted but hooked on Glade plug-ins” – a dextrous tweaking of the Top Trumps system that, with a little more work, will eventually award a winning hand for “I’m not married, solvent, successful or happy, but I do have a beautiful tea towel collection.”
“It’s a viable approach,” I told my friend. “On the down side, you may never admit, far less achieve, your potential, but on the up side you won’t have to stop eating dinner in front of Murder She Wrote before going to bed early for a job you hate.”
“Oh no, hang on,” I added, a bit later. “I think that’s a down side too.”
But she was on her seventh mojito and muttering something about tea towels, and I don’t think she heard me.