Comparison & Envy Are The Thieves of Joy
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”.
During a time span of five years, in quick succession, I had achieved everything I ever wanted to achieve. I got a job that exponentially increased my knowledge and skills, got married, built my house and conceived children. In that time frame I achieved most of everything that I had ever wanted to achieve in life. So here I was thinking alright then, now I can be happy; but, over time the opposite happened. Instead of becoming happy and contented, I became increasingly unhappy and resentful. Nothing in life is ever perfect but it was as close to the broad overview of my life that I wanted as I could get. I could not figure out why this peaceful, happy life that I had always envisioned wasn’t making me happy.
The first thing I realized was that the peaceful happy life was not as peaceful as I had imagined. There was problem number one: I had pie in the sky, unicorn expectations that were impossible to meet. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I already discussed how expectations can set you up for a life of disappointment in my post “Dealing With Disappointment”. It’s a good read and can help you if you are finding yourself stuck in a constant cycle of disappointment. I didn’t have realistic expectations of what achieving these goals would mean for my life. If I did, I would have been prepared for the fact that marriage comes with conflict, children can be messy and loud and work can be stressful. In an upcoming post I will discuss how I am working to manage my life in a way that maintains happiness.
The second thing I realized I was doing, that was the main driver of some poor decisions that I made, and led me down a spiraling path of unhappiness, was comparing myself to others in my peer group.
Your Life Is Better Than Mine
In a previous post “Becoming A Mother Did Not Make Me Happy” I discussed how becoming a mother was not the peak of self actualization I thought or wanted it to be. In fact, it was the defining moment that led to my spiral into unhappiness. Before you say it, I am not blaming my children for my unhappiness, I now know that happiness can only come from within, what I am saying is that it began my journey into wanting to be someone else.
I started spending a lot of time on social media watching others talk about their lives and listening to my friends and colleagues talk about theirs, wondering what is wrong with me. Going through that experience taught me some invaluable lessons that I want to share with you:
1) Their Life Isn’t Better Its Just Different
There’s nothing inherently wrong with using others’ lives as inspiration for your own, it helps us to better frame where we want to be and maybe how to get there.The problem starts when that comparison becomes a negative influence instead of a positive one.
What I mean is that instead of saying, “I want a better or different job so I can travel more like Susie”, I say, “I hate my current job because it doesn’t pay me enough to travel like Susie”. Do you see what I did there? Both of these sentences have the same underlying interest, I want to travel more and I believe that a better job or the same job as Susie will allow me to do so. This isn’t a bad thought in itself, its how I frame it in my mind that is detrimental to my happiness.
Sentence one is framed in a positive way; a get out there and make stuff happen way. I want a better job so that I can travel so I should take whatever steps needed to get that job. Now you might still not go out there and do it but in that moment, you understand what you need and should try to get, a better job. Sentence two is framed in a negative way; a I really hate my station in life right now kind of way. In this way of thinking, I really hate my job because I don’t earn enough to travel and in a way, I hate Susie because she does. I might even be acknowledging that I need to try to get a better job. However, in the mean time, I am sitting there day in and day out hating my job which feeds the disappointment tree that leads to unhappiness.
Now I know you are sitting here thinking, I didn’t read this post for an English lesson. You would be right. However, I thought it was important to reinforce that just be re-framing how we think about how we view others’ lives can make an immediate improvement to our happiness.
So we are watching Susie and we are thinking that she has a better job than us because she can travel. What if I told you that Susie is thinking, “I wish I had a better job so I could have more free time. Sure, this job pays me well and allows me to travel but I feel so stressed out all of the time”. Now look at that. There you were envying Susie who, surprising to you, is just as unhappy in her job but for a different reason.
I said all of that to say that “better” is relative. What you see as better to you is not better to someone else. When you think that someone should be happy because they have X, that person is thinking you should be happy because you don’t have X or you have Y. Stop thinking that someone else’s life is better and start thinking that their life is just different from yours; and, if there is something that they have that you would like, how you can add it to enhance the life you already have.
This brings me to lesson number two…
2) People Envy You, The Same Way You Envy Them
Leading on from point one, what if Susie is your best friend who you spend a lot of time talking to on the phone about your lives. What if I told you that Susie doesn’t just wish she had a different or “better” job, she wishes she had your job. “What?. why would Susie want my job?”, you think. Well that’s because there’s something about your job that she is hearing in your conversations that sounds great to her, that you don’t appreciate.
That happens more often that we think. We spend so much time envying others that we don’t realize that others envy us. The same thoughts you have about others when they bad talk their seemingly perfect lives is the same thoughts they have about you. I was telling a friend about how I wish I had the free time she has to just have fun and she was telling me that she wishes she had the responsibilities I have.
We focus so much on the bad that we sometimes miss the good. Its like when people say that you don’t remember the 99 good things that you did, just the 1 time you messed up. Your life, most likely is not all bad. For those of you who watched “Friends”, do you remember the episode when Ross wrote the list of Pros and Cons about Rachel and Julie? That list had mixed results but the purpose of it was to help him focus his mind objectively on what he really wanted and the benefits and negatives of both. When you find yourself looking at others’ lives and starting to think negatively about your own, take a minute to stop and purposely think about or write down a list of everything that is going good. Maybe even keep that list around for those of us prone to negative thinking. This way you can remind yourself that there are things to be happy about in your life, even if it is not “perfect”.
3) People Project The Image They Want You To See
In point two we just discussed how Susie is envying you and you are wondering why. Well its because Susie’s life really isn’t as good as she makes it out to be. To Susie, she doesn’t have to be happy, she just has to pretend to be happy on social media, so she looks as happy as everyone else is pretending to be. Don’t get me wrong, some people are just as perfectly happy as they seem online, but many are not. In this age where we play out most of our lives in full view of everyone else, we have this need to be project an image of perfection for fear of being judged by others we may or may not know in real life. When you remember that everyone has problems and struggles that we cannot see, it makes it easier to be happier with the life that we have.
When I decided to write this blog, I knew it was a risk. I am here exposing myself to the world , my insecurities, weaknesses and failings as a person. I thought about how this would affect my personal life, job opportunities, just how to mitigate all of these negative things that I knew could happen. I knew they could happen because more and more we are forced to pretend that we are happy when we are not. In a world where potential employers judge you based on what you say or pictures you post on social media in your “free time”, it becomes harder to tell the fake from what is real.
The thing is though, its not for us to determine what is real or not in someone else’s life. That’s a waste of our time, and time is short. all we need to remember is no one’s life is perfect. Look at the celebrities we see struggle with problems and some aren’t able to handle it. Their lives weren’t perfect either.
4) I Don’t Have Anything To Prove To Anyone
So, we play a part online for others to see and to think our lives are perfect. We join in on that social group because its what everyone else is doing so it must be the best thing ever or we spend lots of money we don’t have on things we don’t need so we can feel a part of the group of people that we envy. In doing all of this did we ever stop to think to ourselves or evaluate if any of this will or does make us happy?
So we see Susie post lots of pictures of travelling and it looks fun, we’ve never done it before, and we want to travel so we envy her life and make ourselves unhappy. We finally get the opportunity to travel and we are feeling good but then we do it and its not a good experience. We get really homesick or we realize we can’t cope with strange places. Whatever the reason, we get this thing that based on someone else’s tastes and preferences and stories made us feel it would be perfect for us and our life would be lacking until we get it; and, we are not happy.
Guess what we do next. We post pictures of the best trip ever online, monologue about how we can’t wait to go back and start planning another trip with our besties. Nothing is wrong with trying new experiences and trying them more than once to see if you really like it. What’s wrong is continuing to do something because everyone else is doing it and not because you like it.
We don’t have anything to prove to anyone else but ourselves. Why continue to do something that makes you unhappy because it makes everyone else happy? Why do we choose to think that there must be something wrong with us then, rather than its just not for me? Sometimes in life, especially in the workplace we do things that are socially expected because we want to get through in life. Nothing wrong with that. Just know that there’s nothing wrong with you because you don’t enjoy something that others do.
Overall I learned that I was spending too much time focusing on others and their lives and not enough time focusing on mine. If I want to be happy, sitting around surfing social media wasn’t going to get me there. When I finally truly realized that I needed to focus on what I wanted for my life rather than what other people wanted for theirs, I was able to put a plan in place to create the life I wanted and not a mirror-image of someone else’s.