Comparison Is the Thief of Joy

Theodore Roosevelt? Mark Twain? C. S. Lewis? Dwight Edwards? John Powell? Ray Cummings? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Comparing your status to others often produces envy and unhappiness. Here are four instances from a family of pertinent adages:

  • Comparison is the thief of joy.
  • The thief of joy is comparison.
  • Comparison is the death of joy.
  • Comparison is the death of contentment.

Statesman Theodore Roosevelt, humorist Mark Twain, author C. S. Lewis, and religious figure Dwight Edwards have all been given credit for sayings in this family. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote investigator: QI has located no substantive evidence supporting ascriptions to Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and C. S. Lewis. Tracing this family is difficult, and this article presents a snapshot of current research. The statements above are not semantically identical, but QI believes that this grouping is natural.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in the 1989 book “Happiness Is an Inside Job” by John Powell. This instance referred to self-contentment and not joy. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

“Why can’t you be like that. ” “Why don’t you do as well as your brother?” “If you comb your hair down, people won’t notice your big forehead. You’ll look more presentable.”

And so most of us have been taught to compare ourselves with others. And all the professionals agree: Comparison is the death of true self-contentment.

The earliest match using “comparison” and “thief of joy” located by QI appeared in the 2003 religious book “Are You Following Jesus Or Just Fooling Around?!” by Dr. Ray Cummings. He discussed three thieves of joy. The first thief was bitterness; the second thief was complaining, and the third thief was comparison: 2

A third thief of joy is comparison. When Satan can’t make you bitter enough to complain, he will seek to lower your self-esteem and allow you to compare.

The 2004 religious book “Connect2God: Instant Messages from God to Teens” by Curt Cloninger included an exact match for the popular modern version of the saying. Cloninger disclaimed credit: 3

Somebody once said that comparison is the thief of joy. In other words, if you’re always comparing yourself to other people, then you’ll never be happy.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A wide variety of entities have been labeled thieves of joy in the past. Also some entities have been named as bringers of death to joy and contentment. Here is a sampling with dates and a few ascriptions:

1855: Time is a thief of joys
1881: O Age, thou art the very thief of joy
1893: “It might have been” is but a thief of joy
1915: Thief of joy, worry
1918: Anticipation is, in truth, the real thief of joy
1921: Industry is the thief of joy
1977: Debt is often a thief of joy
1989: Comparison is the death of true self-contentment (John Powell)
1992: Anxiety—that thief of joy
1998: Death, that most remorseless thief of joy and time
2003: Thief of joy is comparison (Ray Cummings)
2004: Comparison is the thief of joy (Anonymous)
2010: Comparison is the thief of joy (Attributed to Dwight Edwards)
2011: Comparison is the thief of joy (Attributed to C. S. Lewis)
2012: Comparison is the thief of joy (Attributed to Theodore Roosevelt)
2013: Comparison is the death of joy (Attributed to Mark Twain)

In 1855 a poem by Park Benjamin titled “To An Old Friend” appeared in the “New York Daily Tribune”. These three lines were included: 4

Time brings a philosophic mind;
Time takes more than he leaves behind;
Time is a thief of joys;

In 1881 “The Love Sonnets of Proteus” by Wilfrid Scawen Blunt included these lines: 5

O Age, thou art the very thief of joy,
For thou hast rifled many a proud fool

In 1893 poet Orie Bower wrote about a missed rendezvous: 6

“It might have been” is but a thief
Of joy; missed pleasures add to grief.
A spring within the desert flows,
And yet the thirsty find it not:

In 1915 “The San Antonio Light” pointed to another thief of joy: 7

It is a respected adage that the head saves the heels. True it is also that the head saves the purse and the nerves and the strain of that thief of joy, worry.

In 1918 the “New York Tribune” pointed to another thief: 8

Anticipation is, in truth, the real thief of joy. The best times are always the unexpected ones. It is not the parties that you plan for weeks and look forward to that come off. There must be surprise and novelty and freshness to yield the last word in happiness and thrill.

In 1921 a collection of humorously subversive adages from U.S. journalist Benjamin De Casseres appeared in “The Sun” of New York. The set was reprinted in other newspapers such as the “Watertown Daily Times”. Here were four items: 9

The road to happiness lies in procrastination.

Industry is the thief of joy.

Always put off until tomorrow what you know you will not do tomorrow.

Hope deferred keeps hope alive.

In 1977 a book chapter titled “Can we escape the debt trap?” by George Fooshee Jr. contained the following passage: 10

I’ve noticed that money that is borrowed with a smile is usually paid back with a scowl. Debt is often a thief of joy. But I’ve seen hundreds experience the relief and joy that comes when they’ve allowed God to lead them out of the debt trap.

In 1989 John Powell published the following statement as mentioned near the beginning of this article: 11

And all the professionals agree: Comparison is the death of true self-contentment.

In 1992 “Laugh Again” by Charles R. Swindoll identified another thief: 12

In place of anxiety—that thief of joy—we pray. We push the worrisome, clawing, monster of pressure off our shoulders and hand it over to God in prayer.

In 1998 a sports journalist in Trenton, New Jersey commented on the death of a popular athlete: 13

Only death, that most remorseless thief of joy and time, could separate them.

In 2003 Dr. Ray Cummings employed the saying under examination as mentioned previously: 14

A third thief of joy is comparison.

In 2004 Curt Cloninger employed the saying while disclaiming credit as mentioned previously: 15

Somebody once said that comparison is the thief of joy.

In January 2004 a column in “The Dallas Morning News” of Texas included the saying with an anonymous attribution: 16

A wise man once told me that comparison is the greatest thief of joy.

In November 2010 a tweet from photographer Helene Dujardin attributed the saying to Dwight Edwards who appears to be a contemporary religious writer: 17

[Quote is by Dwight Edwards] RT @joiebutter: You’re a mind reader. I needed this. RT @sweetnseattle “comparison is the thief of joy”

In 2011 “The Girlfriends Guidebook” by Marian Jordan attributed the saying to fantasy and apologetics writer C. S. Lewis who died in 1963: 18

In order to stop competing with other women, we must stop comparing. C. S. Lewis once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

In April 2012 a Charleston, West Virginia newspaper columnist attributed the saying to statesman Theodore Roosevelt who died in 1919: 19

All this came crashing together the other day when I saw a featured quote from Theodore Roosevelt on the Pinterest website: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

In March 2013 an Easthampton, Massachusetts newspaper columnist attributed the version of the saying with “death of joy” to humorist Mark Twain who died in 1910: 20

If I get into thinking that everyone’s “way” in life should be like mine, then maybe I need to remember what Mark Twain said: “Comparison is the death of joy.”

In conclusion, in 1989 John Powell employed a semantic match for the saying of the form: “comparison is the death of true self-contentment”. In 2003 Ray Cummings wrote that the “thief of joy is comparison”. In 2004 the phrasing “comparison is the thief of joy” was labeled anonymous. So Cummings is the leading candidate for creator, but QI conjectures that the saying was already circulating without attribution.

The ascriptions to Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and C. S. Lewis are currently unsupported.

Image Notes: Painting titled “Comparisons” by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema circa 1892. Image has been resized and cropped.

(Great thanks to Benjamin Torbert, Jamie Hong, RC Grimes, Duncan Millar, Mario DeStefano, Steve Penhollow, Arié Moyal, Adam Gee, Joe Ferraro, and Marta Kvande whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also thanks to mailing list discussants Benjamin Torbert, Laurence Horn, John Baker, Wilson Gray, Jonathan Lighter.)

Notes:

  1. 1989, Happiness Is an Inside Job by John Powell S.J., Chapter: My Assumption – Happiness is a natural condition, Quote Page 6, Tabor Publishing, Allen, Texas. (Verified with scans)
  2. 2003, Are You Following Jesus Or Just Fooling Around?! by Dr. Ray Cummings, Quote Page 81, Xulon Press: Salem Media Group, Camarillo, California. (Google Books Preview)
  3. 2004, Connect2God: Instant Messages from God to Teens by Curt Cloninger, Chapter: True Original, Start Page 12, Quote Page 13, Honor Books, An Imprint of Cook Communications Ministries, Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1855 November 1, New York Daily Tribune, To An Old Friend by Park Benjamin (For the Tribune), Quote Page 6, Column 2, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1881, The Love Sonnets of Proteus by Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Poem: XCIV – Age, Quote Page 107, C. Kegan Paul & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1893, Dixie Poems by Orie Bower, Poem: Call Again, Quote Page 133, The Bower Book Company, Denver, Colorado. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  7. 1915 November 28, The San Antonio Light, Christmas Should Not Be Made a Burden by Ada Patterson, Quote Page 53, Column 1, San Antonio, Texas. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1918 November 9, New York Tribune, The Thief of Joy, Quote Page 10, Column 3, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1921 April 29, Watertown Daily Times, Added Starters, (Acknowledgement to Benjamin De Casseres in New York Sun), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Watertown, New York. (GenealogyBank)
  10. 1977, For Families Only: Answering the Tough Questions Parents Ask, Edited by J. Allan Petersen, Can we escape the debt trap? by George Fooshee Jr., Start Page 300, Quote Page 302, Tyndale House, Wheaton, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  11. 1989, Happiness Is an Inside Job by John Powell, Chapter: My Assumption – Happiness is a natural condition, Quote Page 6, Tabor Publishing, Allen, Texas. (Verified with scans)
  12. 1992, Laugh Again by Charles R. Swindoll, Chapter 12: Freeing Yourself Up to Laugh Again, Quote Page 203 and 204, Word Publishing, Dallas, Texas. (Verified with scans)
  13. 1998 January 5, The Times, Section: Sports, Falzone was one of a kind by Tony Persichilli (Staff Writer), Quote Page C9, Trenton, New Jersey. (NewsBank Access World News)
  14. 2003, Are You Following Jesus Or Just Fooling Around?! by Dr. Ray Cummings, Quote Page 81, Xulon Press: Salem Media Group, Camarillo, California. (Google Books Preview)
  15. 2004, Connect2God: Instant Messages from God to Teens by Curt Cloninger, Chapter: True Original, Start Page 12, Quote Page 13, Honor Books, An Imprint of Cook Communications Ministries, Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Verified with scans)
  16. 2004 January 10, The Dallas Morning News (Knight Ridder Tribune News Service), Section: Texas living, Column: Consejos, Don’t let others size you up by Liliana Gundlach, Catherine Jagers and Daniel Ramirez, Quote Page 1E, Dallas, Texas. (NewsBank Access World News and ProQuest)
  17. Tweet, From: Helene Dujardin @HeleneDujardin, Time: 1:43 AM, Date: Nov 20, 2010, Text: [Quote is by Dwight Edwards] RT @joiebutter: You’re a mind reader. I needed this. RT @sweetnseattle “comparison is the thief of joy”. (Accessed on twitter.com on February 6, 2021) link
  18. 2011, The Girlfriends Guidebook: Navigating Female Friendships by Marian Jordan, Chapter 4: Deal with Your Baggage Part I, Quote Page 90, B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, Tennessee. (Google Books Preview)
  19. 2012 April 15, Charleston Gazette, Smell The Coffee: The thief of joy by Karin Fuller, Quote Page P1F, Charleston, West Virginia. (NewsBank Access World News)
  20. 2013 March 5, Valley Advocate, Section: Arts & Literature, Ringside Holyoke by Sara Krohn, Page Not Specified, Easthampton, Massachusetts. (NewsBank Access World News)