Relative Versus Actual Happiness

Photo by Dietmar Becker on Unsplash

“My life sucks.”

No, not mine. Yours. That’s me quoting the voice in your head.

But don’t we all think that sometimes? Don’t we all compare ourselves to other people and become jealous? Don’t we sometimes wonder what we’re doing wrong? And thanks to the internet and social media, it’s easier than ever to get caught in this comparison trap.

But that’s not real life. It’s not even close.

People don’t share the “normal” parts of their lives on social media, much less the ugly parts. (Well, some do. And they get unfollowed or de-friended. I confess.) Instead, people share things that will bring them the most attention. They crave the dopamine hits.

People share curated highlight reels of their best moments. They take 27 shots of the same photo, test out every filter twice, and share the most flattering version. They make sure the whole world knows — at least 9 times a day — they’re on a tropical island in the South Pacific. Front row seats for Taylor Swift? Share!

And we’re all voyeurs. We peek into everyone else’s lives and compare them to our own. Now our 2-year old car feels ancient. Our European vacation wasn’t all that amazing. Our kids aren’t as cute, smart, or well-behaved as theirs.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

The Comparison Trap

Would you drive two hours to save $40 on a $120 watch?

Would you drive two hours to save $40 on a $60,000 car?

Most people answer “yes” to the first question and “no” to the second. But that’s inconsistent.

The human brain may be pretty developed, but it still has some kinks to work out. It compares things and places “relative values” on them. It tells us we’re saving 33% on the watch, but only 0.00067% on the car. So the watch is worth the effort, but the car isn’t.

But $40 is $40. The actual value of $40 sitting in our bank account is $40, no matter how it got there. The $40 we save on the watch will buy the same amount of Natty Light as the $40 we save on the car. It should bring us the same level of happiness.

But it doesn’t. Because our brains don’t work like that. Instead, we compare things to each other and place relative values on them.

Relative Happiness

In the same way, we compare our lives to the ones we see around us. Or rather, we place a value on our interpretation of other peoples’ lives. Then we use that value to assign our own.

We see amazing photos from their lavish vacations, and ours seems underwhelming. But we don’t see the miserable flights where their kids throw 16-hour tantrums.

We see our neighbor’s new car. It’s only a few years newer than ours, but it has bells and whistles that weren’t offered before. Now our car seems outdated. But the neighbor doesn’t talk about how they play “Go Fish” with credit cards so they can pay the monthly car note.

We see perfect family photos where everyone sits still and smiles. We love our family, but we can’t get our kids to behave like that. We don’t see the Hell mommy went through for six hours to keep the kids from killing each other. All for five photos worth sharing.

We place a value on our happiness relative to the people we see around us. Instead, we should only care about the actual value of our happiness.

Actual Happiness

We had a blast at the Taylor Swift concert, even though we were in the upper deck and our friends were in the front row. Did they have $1000 more fun than we did?

We have roofs over our heads with plenty of room to store all the useless crap we don’t need. And we have two cars that sit parked in the garage 95% of the time. Will spending more money on a bigger one or a newer one increase our long-term happiness? Or are we trying to signal our improved status in life to our followers?

We love our kids the way they are. We love them because of how they are, not in spite of it. Do they have fun playing basketball? Then who cares if they didn’t get a triple-double? No two kids are the same. Why compare them?

The more we compare our lives to the people around us, the less satisfied we’ll be. We’ll keep running on the treadmill.

Instead, we can make the conscious decision to focus on our own, actual happiness. To stop comparing ourselves to others.

It’s not easy. It’s a continuous process. I know because I’m guilty of every example in this post. Except for Taylor Swift — I wrote that for mass appeal.


P.S. — This post is sponsored by Stumbling on Happiness. It’s a must-read.

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1 thought on “Relative Versus Actual Happiness

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more!!! As my good friend Mike Perry says – Everybody’s got their bag of rocks!!!

    Kelly has enlightened me a lot with the concept of Mindfulness! A good read for beginners is “Mindfulness for Beginners” by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Also recommended by Mike Perry. This month’s Time (Special Edition is “The New Mindfulness”) Living, Thinking, Being.

    I think that if people could try to develop this sort of thinking, it would help with all the comparisons!

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