The root of much unhappiness is comparison. Comparison gets in the way of healthy self-appreciation — and thus happiness – more than anything else. Because of comparison, hardly anybody is ever happy with what they get and nothing’s ever good enough for practically everybody. That’s because we measure our success in anything by comparing it to what others have or to what we have had before.
In other words, whether you are happy with what you get depends on how it measures up to some norm. That norm depends on two things: what other people get (social comparison), and what you yourself are used to getting (habituation). It is hard for success in any form (money, status, prestige, and so on) to improve your happiness because as actual success rises, the norm by which success is judged rises in step.
A study, for instance, found Olympic bronze medalists to be happier than silver medalists. The bronze medalists, it turns out, tended to compare themselves with all the people who competed but won no medal at all, while the silver medalists compared themselves with the gold medal winners and tortured themselves with the belief that they could have – should have – won the gold. Similarly, in families, it has been found that the more your spouse earns, the less satisfied you are with your own job.
Because we constantly compare ourselves to others, we don’t feel good about what we have and who we are. The grass seems perennially greener in your neighbor’s lawn. Continuing with this metaphor, it might be said that the grass always seems to be greener in your neighbor’s yard because (1) you’re urinating on your own lawn and (2) you’re looking at your neighbor’s lawn from your lawn, and everything looks better from a distance. There is only one solution to this “grass is greener” problem: practicing self-appreciation. Self-appreciation involves both staying off of other people’s lawns and taking care of your own.
Appreciate Your Own Lawn
A key ingredient in happiness is appreciating your life as it is. You can do this by keeping an appreciation log. Just list the positive aspects of things in your life. List the positive aspects of what you have and what you appreciate about your life and the people in it. And be sure to make a list of what you appreciate about yourself. Do this at least once a week – every day is even better.
Science has found that the benefits of being grateful are optimized when you focus on appreciation at least once a week. This exercise isn’t about wearing rose-colored glasses as much as it is about appreciating what’s worthy of appreciation. Some things are just bad. If you can’t change them, learn to accept them.
When you’re feeling particularly frustrated, jealous, or hopeless, see if you can’t sit down and write out a list of things you appreciate about your current situation. By doing so, you’ll come to the realization that you have enough and do enough already. And when you do decide to get or do more, it will come from a positive, healthy, loving, inspired place instead of a dark, negative, and unhealthy bottomless pit.
To fully appreciate yourself and your life, you have to ignore what others think of you, what others have, and what others do. Only your thoughts influence your happiness. Others’ thoughts of you do not affect your happiness. Only your thoughts about their thoughts affect how you feel. Only your thoughts about what they have and what they do influence your feelings of well-being. You can change your thoughts and you can’t change theirs. What others think, say, do, or have has nothing to do with you.
The only opinion in the entire universe that is of importance to you is your own. And your opinion affects your entire life. Nobody else needs to get what you’re doing or agree with it. So replace your shopping sprees, working sprees, pleasure sprees, complaining sprees, and unhappiness sprees with an appreciation spree. Shop for things to appreciate about your life and yourself, not for things to purchase or improve. Never admire somebody else’s fortune so much that you become dissatisfied with your own.
Take Care of Your Own Lawn
An important way to appreciate your life is to take care of what and who you have in your life. Take care of the things in your life by giving them routine maintenance and keeping them clean and polished. Wash your car; dust your desk; use your kitchen to cook great meals instead of going out. When you care for them, your possessions will only grow in value. Take care of the people in your life in similar ways, figuratively speaking. Give your friendships routine maintenance. Check in on the people you care for; tell them you appreciate them. They’ll appreciate you back.
My mother and father believed in taking care of things. They worked hard to provide us kids with some rather generous and expensive gifts and they hated seeing those gifts lost, broken, or going unused. Despite their admonishments, however, we would inevitably tire of that new bicycle, video game system, compact disc, or toy and toss it downstairs into the cellar or garage, never to be seen again. We’d do that every year with something or other. Somehow, though, my parents’ lessons about taking care of things stuck with me.
Just as frequently as we’d toss a random toy or gift into the cellar, we’d find one there, too. It was like Christmas in July. There was always at least one old Christmas or birthday gift sitting there just waiting for us to retrieve it. We’d pull that old baseball mitt, chipped wooden baseball bat, crippled doll, rusty bicycle, or deflated football from the crack or corner in which it slept and run upstairs as happy as you’d be after finding a long-lost friend.
Then we’d break out the oil, the cleaning solutions, the wood glue, a rag or old T-shirt. And we’d go to work on that mitt, bat, doll, bike, or ball. Before too long, it looked and felt brand new. When we were done fixing it, we’d play with it as though we had just bought it from the store. Each and every time, I remember, I felt a mix of excitement and slight sadness that I had somehow unappreciatively let this great gift get musty, dusty, and old when it had treated me so well. From then on, whatever it was that I found I promised never to treat it so poorly again. For the most part, that’s what I did. Every summer I seemed to learn the same lesson: what you appreciate and take care of only grows in value. That’s the lesson here, too.
I’m still the same way. The only difference is that the toys are sometimes bigger and the stakes are sometimes higher. What’s more, I believe in taking care of my relationships and myself the same way. For instance, I work out nearly every day. I get a haircut every Friday. Simple things. They make a difference in how I look, yes, but the important thing is that they make a difference in how I feel. People do notice that, and I notice it, too. I’m happier.
About the author:
Robert Mack is the author of Happiness from the Inside Out. He is the resident life coach for Miami Life Center, of Travel & Leisure’s top twenty-five health and wellness centers. Visit him online at:
Excerpted with permission from Happiness from the Inside Out © 2009 by Robert Mack. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.
It will look like this: Comparison – The Root of All Unhappiness