Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Happiness Series: 4 - You Are Unhappy Because of Comparisons

Comparisons Are Reality

Imagine there is a terrible natural disaster. Your house and possessions are destroyed but everyone in your street is killed except for you and your family. Freak luck kept you all alive and you stagger out the other side with minor injuries, surrounded by death, but somehow, miraculously, okay.

Now imagine a different scenario. Another freak disaster and again your house and possessions are all destroyed. You and your family still escape unharmed. This time you have no minor injuries at all, you are perfectly fine, but none of your neighbors houses are damaged.

Objectively, which scenario is better? The latter, of course. In both cases, you lose everything you own, but in the latter, you have no injuries. In the former, you have mild injuries and all your neighbors are dead.

However in the first scenario, you would be grateful. At least you survived. At least all your family survived. You might have nothing else, but at least you have each other. At least you only have minor injuries.

Comparatively, if you were in the second situation, you would be devastated. You lost everything. All of your possessions, your house, where you live. Its all gone. Why you? Why were you singled out for this freakish disaster?

Comparison is our only frame of reference.

We have no innate understanding of normal. We are born as a blank slate and ‘learn’ what is normal as we experience the world. Our ‘normal’ living conditions now are far superior to even those of royalty hundreds years ago.

Indoor plumbing, technological and medical advances, ready access to food, clean water and hygiene and revolutionized human living conditions. However all of these things are very new to humanity. For millions of years we lived in conditions that we would now consider squalid and filthy.

And if you are reading this, either on a computer or phone, you are likely in the very top percentage of humans as organized by material wealth.

Someone living in Australia on a disability pension usually falls below the poverty line. The costs of rent, food and utilities are far beyond what most people on a disability pension can afford. And yet, the pension alone, puts them in the top richest 5% globally. The most impoverished people in one country, can still be some of the wealthiest, globally.

Who Do You Compare Yourself To?

You probably don’t compare yourself to a child who just died if dysentery in a third world country. Or the desperate parents who tried to save them while earning just a few cents a day, working in a hot, dangerous factory.

You probably compare yourself to the people around you, your friends and family, and the people you wish you were more like, celebrities and the characters on the TV shows, movies and books you love.

There’s nothing wrong with that. This isn’t about making you feel guilty because you’re not desperate and poor. I’m just trying to show how we, as humans, decide what is ‘normal’.

We don’t base ‘normal’ on our intellectual understanding or scientific polls and surveys. We based it on what we see.

Everything On TV Is A Lie

TV is not real. Even shows that seem very real at not real. We all love Grand Designs, but it paints a VERY rosy picture. The episodes are short and we see a pre-build plan, two, sometimes three days during the build, then one day when the build is mostly complete. However the time passed between filming episode one and the final episode can be 1-3 years. We don’t get to see the 38 hours of fighting, or the 26 hours crying or the blood pressure scores of the family throughout that period. We don’t get to hear about all the times they were close to separating and wanted to give up. And when they do mention the stress and heartache, its brushed off very quickly. A pat on the back and some very heartfelt British nodding.

But we have to be aware of all the lies shows tell, and most of them tell a thousand a minute. More even, if every image really is worth a thousand words. Things like the speed people recover from break ups. The ease of forming friendships. The ease of getting out of the house. The frequency that adults get to hang out with their friends. How good a quickly whipped up dinner looks. The ease of meeting romantic prospects. The speed attraction forms when you do.

I could go on for hours. TV lies about every aspect of reality, constantly. And it leaves us with a constant uneasy sense that we are not normal, because the people we see, the people on TV, are very different to us.

Remember the brain can’t tell the difference between TV and reality. We aren’t born with a sense of normal. We learn it. And if you learn it from TV, you can never, ever feel normal.

Social Media Is Warped Too

The problem is, of course, that social media is curated and, worse, it is a constant feed of noteworthy materials. My feed is full of good news, because I tend to unfollow people who post negative things. Which is generally fantastic, however I have well over 1000 facebook friends, so any given day there will usually be at least one big good news item, a birth, marriage or engagement, and probably, on average, 3-4 good new articles relating to signing publishing contracts or reaching major sales milestones.

Now, each individual person probably only accounts for one or two of those a year. And I probably account for one or two of those a year. However with an endless feed to scroll down with heaps of good news, it can seem like everyone has great things happening all the time.

Add to that the fact that people tend to cherry pick what they share to make their lives look good and interesting, and you have a recipe for very negative self comparison.

Even I don’t portray a very realistic view of my life on social media. I talk about my chronic health issues, yes, and I am quite direct about them. However I don’t whine and I don’t talk about them when I am at my worst.

The reason is, that when I am on social media it is for two reasons:
1. I want to entertain and improve other people’s day or
2. I want to connect with people. And if my social media was just a running bullet list of all the ways my life is shit, I would get to do neither of those things.

We Tend To Imagine The Best Of Them, With The Best Of Us

When we compare our lives to those of our peers and family, and we see the things they have that we don’t, we tend to imagine what it would be like if we had all the best parts of our life AND all the best parts of their life.

For example, I have a friend who has a really amazing marriage and her and her husband brought a lovely house. I also have a house, but hers is better. And I wish I had a relationship like hers.

Buuuuut, I don’t want her husband. I think he’s as boring as sand. Nice, but please don’t make me talk to him for more than five minutes, you know? His job is boring and he likes boring TV and he has the personality of beige.

Another friend of mine has adorable children (and a great marriage and a house). I would really love kids. But I know I tend to romanticize, and be jealous of, the idea of kids, without really appreciating how exhausting it is for her having a child with special needs.

And don’t even get me started on other authors and their careers. Paint me green.

Sometimes people tell me they are jealous of aspects of my life, which is frankly absurd, since high word counts aside, I am essentially a forever alone corpse with a diet of lettuce, potato and lean beef.

Yet when I imagine having the things other people have, I don’t imagine giving up the things I already have that they may want. I want double the amount of good things in my life.

What You Can Do About It

So, if you accept you compare yourself to your peers, and because of the warped filtering of both social media and our brains, this is making you miserable, what can you do about it?

People who volunteer their time are much happier than people who don’t. There is no data on if volunteering makes people happy, or if its just that happy people volunteer more. Initial evidence seems to suggest a bit of both.

However the act of helping our community, regardless of if we are helping people, animals or landcare, does seem to act to make us more aware and grateful of what we have.

If you feel particularly helpless and pathetic compared to your friends, you might want to try and volunteer with people, rather than animals or nature. Instead, look for recovering drug addicts, homeless people, people in respite care or disadvantaged children. Since the exposure to people who are worse off than you, will realign your idea of what is ‘normal’.

I think, however, the trick would be to find people you can help who have a different bracket of problems than yours. If you are an ex drug addict, you shouldn’t be helping ex drug addicts if you are trying to make yourself appreciate what you have more. If you are close to homelessness, don’t help people who are now homeless.

Focus on helping a group with very different experiences to yours, so that it is harder to make direct comparisons. You’re not going to feel better about your life if you are helping people who you could argue are better off. EG: when you were on drugs, you had no support, but this drug addict has a loving family who want them to get better.

Remind Yourself What Is Real

When you are feeling bad about what you do or don’t have in your life, make a conscious choice to remember what is real and what isn’t. If you don’t count the stuff on social media or TV, what do you actually know about the lives of your peers? It might be frighteningly little.

If you are going to compare yourself, compare yourself realistically. That means paying attention to the things you DO have, as well as the things you don’t.

Show gratitude for anything you would miss if you lost it forever. Imagine if you had to say you were grateful for everything, every day, to keep it? Now choose to live like that.

Moving Forward

Next week, we are going to talk about taking personal responsibility for our problems. I am sure some of you are already considering not showing up next week. But if that’s you, you just learned you have a problem taking responsibility for things and prefer to avoid thinking about it. So you probably need next week’s post more than anyone else.

Jake, In Summary:

I don’t really compare myself to my friends very often. I dredged up some examples earlier, but in reality, most of the comparisons I make are not between myself and my friends, or myself and what I see on TV. They are between myself and my daydreams. I have an idea of what I want my life to be like, and it is very vivid. So clear and exact, I feel like it is something I had that has been taken away from me. Like I am being held hostage from my real life in this sort of purgatory hell of chronic illness.

I spend a lot more time thinking about this reality I want, than I do actually doing the things that make me happy. That’s sometimes because the things that make me happy are too taxing for my crippled, rotting corpse of a body. But sometimes it just because I think ‘if I can’t have everything from my perfect life, what is the point?’

The point, of course, is not being a miserable git, and making the most of the life I do have. Ideally, I want to be happy every moment I am around. I want to always find a way to maximize the happiness of every moment. And that is impossible if I am busy sulking about what I don’t have.

The exercises we are going to do in weeks 15 and 16 should address this. And they do work for me, for a few months, then I usually have to do them again to remind myself.

Until then, ask yourself who or what you are comparing your life to that is making you miserable. Is it even real?

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