In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin explores her own beliefs to arrive at what she terms her Personal Commandments, so named because they are overarching principes that guide her life. One belief I constantly strive to adhere to is: do not compare yourself to others. We all know this practice inevitably leaves us feeling deflated. We see those with a bigger house, a better income, a newer car, fancier furniture, etc. and we internalize that in a negative way. We’re left feeling like our things or our accomplishments are “less than.”
What’s surprising is that even Olympic medal winners are guilty of this mindset of not being good enough, most specifically the silver medal winners. Researchers looked at facial expressions and listened to audio interviews and found a systematic medal pattern, “which is the silver medal winners tended to be unhappy or look more unhappy and the bronze medal winners tended to be happier.”
To the average human who will never be in the Olympics (i.e., me), this seems at first glance to be laughable. After all, all three competitors beat out billions of people to arrive on that box. But is it that simple? How often do we look at ourselves and feel like we have enough (whether it’s possessions, schooling, prestige) and think that just a little bit more would make us that much happier?
According to the results of the research, This is based on the concept of framing. As humans we’re not very good at objectively judging how happy we should be or how well we have performed. So if you have to judge whether you have a nice house or a big car or a smart kid, what you do is end up comparing yourself to other people’s houses, cars, and kids. We’re not very good at judging our performance in an absolute sense… So the silver medal winner is saying, “If only I’d done a little bit better, I could have had the gold,” whereas the bronze winner is comparing himself to all the chaps who didn’t win a medal at all and saying, “At least I got on the victory podium.”
This is fascinating. It’s a great reality check for me. I am embarrassed by how often I subject myself to these thoughts. It would only take two seconds for me to automatically list everyone I know who makes more money than me or has a house with more than one bathroom or a master’s degree. Are those the gold medal winners? I think so and so has it easier because their parents paid for their whole wedding. Or I think of someone else who’s not even 40 and been to Hawaii multiple times. I think of people who have bigger houses or don’t have to worry about paying gazillions of dollar for day care for their kid. I compare myself to people who can pay cash for new snowmobiles when it takes me five months to save to get my house painted. I think of people who have full basements where their relatives can sleep when I’m struggling to find room for a shredder in my 984-square-foot house.
WHY do I do this to myself? It is ridiculous. It is such a waste of time. I am stuck in silver-medal-winning dissatisfaction. All I am doing is itemizing why I should feel like shit. I’m just fixated on how the world can be against me. I then get envious of others and resent their successes instead of cheering them on. I obscure reality and confuse credit card debt with material happiness. It’s a battle I wage consistently and sometimes unsuccessfully.
However, I want to adopt the attitude of the bronze medal winner. Maybe I haven’t been to Hawaii multiple times but I have been there. Maybe I don’t have a huge house but what I have is perfectly acceptable and financially manageable. I don’t have a master’s degree but I know I’m intelligent. Yeah maybe I can’t pay cash for a new boat but I have money leftover after I pay for food and water and electricity and a roof over my head. In fact I have so much money that I can adopt a dog and feed him and meet his needs. There was a time when I could not do that.
It’s also important to remember that you don’t know what goes on behind the scenes. You don’t know if Joe in that big house is happy. You don’t know if Linda with that fancy car is struggling with feelings of self worth. You don’t know if the people who do wild vacations every year are sad because they’ll never be able to have a kid. And regardless of all the material possessions that those in your immediate circle might have, there’s are fucking gobs of people across the globe who can’t read, can’t afford medicine, don’t know what hot water feels like. Sometimes the little things really are the big things.
I’ll never forget the end of The Glass Castle, where Jeanette Walls is asked what is the most exciting thing she bought once she started making money. She was literally dirt poor her whole life and knew about eating a cake that had mold and bugs on it because at least it was food. Walls replied that nothing she bought ever compared to the luxury of turning on a bath faucet and having hot water come out whenever you wanted it.
Wow. I actually have that. That’s better than bronze, silver, and gold. I have a loving husband. I can make my house payments. I have a job that pays me when I’m on vacation. It just goes to show you that in the Olympics, as in life, it’s all about perspective.