Enjoy your best possible life – and enjoy others enjoying their lives too!
Have you ever felt quite good about something, only to learn that someone else is doing even better than you, or that they have more than you, and then felt frustrated or disappointed?
Have you ever discounted an achievement because although you did well, someone else did even better?
I know I have (in fact I experience this far more frequently than I’d really like to admit); and I’m pretty sure most of you have also experienced something similar because it’s a very common phenomenon.
Interestingly, this effect is a central feature of what some academics have recently labelled the secret to happiness!
An equation to smile
In 2014, researchers from the University College in London generated a formula that essentially summarised what makes us happy. Unfortunately, the formula is so complicated that most people won’t even come close to understanding it (myself included)! But it has been “translated” and explained as basically meaning…
…our happiness depends at least in part on the happiness of those with whom we’re spending time, at that moment.
One of the lead researchers has been quoted as saying that “inequality reduces happiness on average, both when people get more or when they get less than the other people around them”.
Now this is very interesting, because previous research has also investigated social comparison and found we can either compare up (that is, look to people who’re faring better than us) or compare down (to people who’re not doing as well in whatever realm) and in very simple terms, we tend to feel happier when we do the latter.
It’s all relative
In a 1998 study, for example, published in the Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organisation, participants were asked if they’d rather earn $50,000 a year while other people earn $25,000; or if they’d rather earn $100,000 a year while other people earn $250,000. The majority preferred the former option.
So people consciously chose to earn far less if it meant others would have even lower levels of income. One might refer to this as a theory of relativity!
And notably, this social comparison effect doesn’t just apply to income or financial measures. Just last year, in 2015, a study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology confirmed what many of us suspected because we’ve actually experienced it. That is, Facebook usage has been associated with number of undesirable mental health consequences including depression, low self-esteem, and even jealousy.
What’s especially interesting is that the mediator seemed to be something very similar to the aforementioned social comparison factor. That is, comparing our seemingly mundane and boring lives with other people’s fantastically fascinating lives contributes to negative moods.
But don’t worry, be happy
But the good news is that income level and social media use need not be associated with depression or other negative effects. In fact, if we’re mindful of the factors that cause these effects we can actually use them to create more happiness and a greater level of appreciation for the lives we already have and/or the lives we’re trying to create.
We can become more aware, for example, of the relative meaninglessness of income level. As many who’re far more expert than me in this area have previously pointed out, real wealth is not just based on what you earn but more accurately, on the difference between what you earn and what you spend (not to mention how you spend it). Similarly, just knowing that most people only post their best and most positive moments on Facebook and Instagram can limit the extent to which we compare our “bloopers reel” with other people’s “highlights reel”.
Combine this with some good old fashioned gratitude, which simply requires focusing more on what we have and less on what we don’t have and ultimately, we can celebrate all that’s great in our own lives and still feel good about the good in the lives of others.
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