Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Happiness Series: 7 - To Be Happy: Prioritise Interpersonal Relationships

Happiness and Interpersonal Relationships

Studies show the clearest indicator of your overall life satisfaction and happiness depends on the quality of your interpersonal relationships.

Humans are not solitary animals. That is why isolation, exile and solitary have always been used as a form of punishment. Depriving any social species physical interaction with others of the same species is cruel. Be they pets or people.

People with strong community ties, healthy social networks and a large, involved family who socialize often live longer and happier lives. In contrast, people who feel isolated, people without social connections and family, have a higher rate of depression and suffer much higher rates of certain illnesses. They die younger and report being less happy with their lives.

This is a growing problem with men in particular, who often aren’t taught proper social skills and are discouraged from emotional connection with anyone but their spouse. If their spouse (who should not be their sole source of emotional support to begin with) leaves or dies, they don’t know how to form new bonds, or strengthen existing ones, and become increasingly isolated.

What Are Interpersonal Relationships

Interpersonal relationships are the relationships between yourself and your friends, partner, family, co-workers, church, communities and neighbors. Some will be chosen by birth, location or your job, some will be your choice and maintained at your will.

Ideally, we want as many of our interpersonal relationships to be good as possible. We want them to be friendly and relaxed. They can’t all be equally important or take up equal amounts of time.

However the more positive and sincere your interactions are with others, the healthier and happier you will be.

Why Don’t We Prioritize Other People?

So given how important relationships with others are to our well-being, how come we, as a society don’t put more importance on them?

Traditionally, interpersonal relationships were developed and maintained in two particular institutions. The home and the church. Families tended to live close together—it wasn’t as easy to move to the other side of the state, or world—so people tended to settle in the same town as their parents and cousins. Big family dinners are traditional in many cultures and are still maintained by some minority groups.

The church was the other main source of social interactions. Every Sunday, AT LEAST, everyone in the community would come together and talk. Church was a source, not just of spiritual guidance, but news and gossip. Even now, many people in strong Church communities rarely choose to socialize outside their church groups. And many modern churches aren’t just about the service. They have numerous social events and outings.

However if you aren’t in a church, or your church isn’t as socially focused, that isn’t an option. And if your family is spread all over the country, or world, huge weekend family BBQs aren’t an option.

Which means these two traditional institutions for social interaction are gone. We’re expected to make bonds and develop relationships on our own, despite there not being any real traditions in place for how this is achieved. And with society placing all its focus on romantic relationships above social ones. So much so, that some people fear interacting with others, lest it be seen as a romantic overture. Or worse, people—men in particular—who are so hard-coded to look for romance, they can no longer recognize friendly overtures.

It can be very hard to go against the grain and prioritize non-romantic friendships and relationships in a society that doesn’t value them—even if they are important to everyone’s well being.

We, in general, also tend to fall into the trap of believing the societal norm. Even though we are lonely, we think socializing should come second to our job, perhaps our hunt for a romantic partner, or even time alone to ‘decompress’.

But after working, trying to get a date and decompressing at home, there is no time for our friends. But, we promise ourselves, we’ll make time for that next week.

What Hurts Interpersonal Relationships?

The most harmful thing we can do to our interpersonal relationships is ignore them and not give them any time. Time is the most valuable resource we have. No matter how rich or poor we are, we all have the same number of seconds in a day (though the rich have more choice in how they spend them), so giving time to family and friends is the best way to show them we love and appreciate them.

To that end, stop spending time—your most precious resource—on things and people who you don’t love and who aren’t valuable to you.

We have to put effort into remembering the thing that are important to other people. Their birthdays, celebrating their achievements, being there for them when we know they are facing hard times. Make a note, not just of people’s birthdays and wedding anniversaries, but the dates of their kids birthdays and the dates of their parents deaths. Tell them you are thinking of them. If one of your friends is being published, message them to congratulate them on publication day.

These small things mean a lot to the person you are doing it for.

On the other hand, forgetting birthdays and other major life events and not making time for people is very damaging. You forgetting makes them sad and I am sure that is the last thing you want. So put that extra effort in and you will be glad you did.

What If Its Hard For Me to Form Interpersonal Relationships?

I have been chronically ill—regularly house bound—since 2008. And, usually, do to financial concerns, I have been forced to live out of town, usually an hour or more from most of my friends.

I understand the many, often insurmountable obstacles, that come with making and seeing friends. Money, health, distance, etc. I have been blessed that I have not suffered social anxiety as well, however that can be a huge factor in socialization. I know a lot of my friends struggle with it.

And everyone struggles with making time around other commitments—work, kids and everything in between.

Thank god for the internet. Sometimes people like to tout the internet as the killer of interpersonal relationships—but those people have clearly never been to ill to leave the house. The internet is the only lifeline many of us have to other people. Most of us would probably prefer quality, face to face interactions. But that doesn’t mean online friendships are less valid.

I have been friends with people for over 15 years now, who I talk to almost every day online. My friend Annie and I have been skyping (Or using MSN, back in the day), almost every single day for sixteen years now. Half our lives.

However online relationships can be fleeting and end abruptly. If you want to connect with a community online, consistency is the key. Touch base regularly, ask questions, remember the answers. Support one and other. Praise one and other’s accomplishments.

Sometimes though, online isn’t enough. Regardless of what your struggles are, its worth finding one or two local communities that you can become a regular part of. For me, it is Vision Writers and MCC church. Those are my communities, those are my social groups. I attend them both for the content of the group (writing and LGBT friendly faith) and the people I get to interact with.

It is worth making the time and saving the energy to connect with a community group a 1-4 times a month. Choose one that focuses on something you love—a hobby or cause—and find one with a positive, supportive culture and good, well-intentioned people.

Almost all of my close friends I met at groups like these. I wouldn’t give them up for the world.

How Can I Prioritize Interpersonal Relationships?

Some people are naturally very interested in the people around them. They remember birthdays and facts, they ask questions about people’s lives because they are interested and make them feel good because of their genuine love and fascination they feel toward their friends.

I am not one of those people.

Every year in January, I sit down with my new and old day planner and write in everyone’s birthdays. Because I would forget them all—even my own mother’s—if I didn’t. For those birthdays that are very important (like my mother) I put a reminder at least a week beforehand, so I remember to buy a gift.

On habitica, a daily habit tracking app, one of the daily items for me is ‘contact, compliment or improve someone’s day’. That way, at least once a day, I can use social media to reach out to someone and make them feel better. Hopefully. This also stops me from becoming a complete recluse.

Maybe you think you should just naturally be a good friend. Maybe you think its inauthentic to ‘plan’ to be nice to people like I do. I don’t think my friends mind though. I don’t say to them: ‘you were on my to do list for the day’. I hope they feel genuinely loved and appreciated, even though I might have needed a reminder to be nice.

After all, I chose to be nice to them, not one of the thousand other people I know. So hopefully they realize I love them and they are special to me. If you need a system in place to remind you to make time for people, implement it.

Making people feel loved and appreciated is more important than your ego. And if you are worried about the morality of planning to be nice, you are putting your ego first.

Another really useful tool, is to have a list of priorities in your life. I’ve talked about this in my time series, here ( Make a list of all the things in your life and be honest about where they rank… and where you want them to rank.

Then, when you are making decisions about what to do next, refer to your priority list. If you have made a vow to yourself you will spend more time with your kids and less on checking your emails at home, then next time your kids ask you to play while you are checking work emails, shut down the computer and GO PLAY WITH THEM.

Moving Forward

Next week we are going to look at another very important relationship. You relationship with the one person you are stuck with, from birth, right through to death. The one person you have to live with, every moment of every day.


Jake, In Summary

I am blessed to be surrounded by the most amazing people. This is, in part, because I don’t compromise on my values. I’m not afraid to lose someone, if I find their values are contrary to my own. In short, none of my friends are bigots or assholes, because I don’t choose to tolerate bigots and assholes.

There are so many people in the world. Seven billion of them. So I know there is always someone better—another awesome friend to be made—just around the corner. If you grew up in the same place, and still know the same people from primary school, this can be harder to believe, and giving up the friends you have a  bit scarier.

My health has made it impossible to be the sort of friend I wish I could be. Though as I get healthier, it is something I am working on. I’m trying to be the sort of friend I always wish I could be. And a big project for me, going forward, is becoming further entrenched in the communities I have chosen to be a part of. Church, writer’s groups, my friends and other communities, online and off.

When I was ill, I was always a bit ashamed to socialize with people. Too aware of my own limits. Now I am improving, but out as trans, being out in public can be a bit of a hassle. But if you have been wanting to meet me for coffee, now is the time to suggest it. Particularly if you are willing to meet me half way, at Chermside.

As much as possible, for the next year and beyond, I will be working on improving friendships and relationships and hopefully, that means seeing more of you.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Happiness Series: 6 - To Be Happy: Learn Grattitude

We Tend To Remember Bad, More Than Good
Our brains are hardwired to remember bad things, rather than good things. It was much more important for primitive man to remember there was a bear living in a cave, than to remember there was also pretty flowers growing there.

Remembering negative experiences protects us from danger. And thus it is an evolutionary prerogative. Having the luxury to worry about being happy is a very modern concept. However as we don’t have to grow and kill all our own food, we have medicine and we have dealt with most of the dangers primitive man faced, we, as a species, have reached self actualization and happiness on the ‘to do’ list.

But what that means is, even if good and bad things happened to us in equal measure, we would still think more BAD things happened. Because those memories remain at the forefront and the better memories are quietly erased as irrelevant.

Choose To Remember Good Things

In order to really appreciate the true level of good in our lives, we have to make a conscious choice to do so. However since our brains don’t, and possibly, can’t do it on their own, we need to have some sort of system in place to help us.

If you are going to be happy, you have to appreciate the good things in our lives. And the easiest way to do that, is by showing gratitude.

I think gratitude is one of those things that some people roll their eyes at. It feels new age and a bit neon Christian. It makes us thinks of 20-something women in pastels with really popular instagrams. Well, that’s what it makes me think of.

However its actually a rather old, rather traditional, rather cultural ideal packaged up in a new wave of enthusiasm. Its the modern version of saying grace before meals, and prayers before bedtimes. It is something our grandparents and great grandparents were familiar with.

Most people will say it goes back to the bible, when Jesus gave thanks to God before meals. However it is much older than that. Many native tribes from all over the world gave thanks—usually to the spirits of the animals they killed—before eating. Gratitude, may be almost as old as language itself.

Gratitude Really Works

In my experience, and in the reported experiences of many women in their 20s with popular instagrams, gratitude works. This is also backed up by a few sociological studies, though I am not going to link to any of them here. There are lots of books you can read on happiness, if you want to know more about the science. Email me if you want recommendations.

Remember the important thing about showing gratitude is making you happy. Its about remembering all the good things and people that surround you every day, so you can really appreciate them.

In my experience, it takes a week or two of daily gratitude lists, before it really starts having a positive effect. At first I was making myself write three things I was grateful for each day, and trying not to repeat ones I had used before. I used an app on my phone called Zest for this. These days, I quickly open zest when I wake up in the morning and I usually write 8-10 things I am grateful for, not because I think I should, but because it feels so good to do it.

But What Should I Be Grateful For?

For the longest time, I had no idea how to be grateful. I didn’t know what to be grateful for. I was at a complete loss. I tried to be happy when good things happened, but they felt few and far between, which left me with few things to be grateful for on a day to day basis.

Then, one life changing day, a pastor at my church was talking about gratitude. Specifically, giving thanks to God. He said: “If everything you didn’t give thanks for today, would be gone forever tomorrow, what would you be grateful for?”

Suddenly, there were hundreds of things I was grateful for. Thousands. Suddenly, I could have spent all day doing nothing but reciting the things I am grateful for in an OCD panic that if I didn’t I would lose them forever.

Thankfully life doesn’t actually work like that, and even if you aren’t grateful for things, they tend to stick around. However it did teach me what to be grateful for. Everything I don’t want to lose.

Ways To Show Gratitude To Others

Say thank you. Literally tell people you are grateful for them. I used to feel silly telling people I really appreciated their efforts on my behalf. In fact, I think my pride stung when I had to do it. I felt like I should have been able to do everything alone.

However maybe you can do everything alone, that doesn’t mean you are. And as long as your gratitude is sincere and not over the top, most people will feel fantastic when you thank them.

Saying thank you doesn’t have to be a ten page letter. It doesn’t even have to be a one page letter. A few sentences are enough. You want to make someone happy, not take up an hour of their time.

‘Hey, I just wanted you to know I really appreciated you coming to bat for me yesterday. I’m so glad I have friends like you on my side. Let me know if I can ever return the favor. Jake.’

That’s all you need to say.

Ways To Track Gratitude For Yourself

Due to the popularity of gratitude in a whole range of circles, there are a lot of apps, specialized notebooks, and tools out there to help you track your gratitude. Just search gratitude tracker in the google play store on you phone and you will find a whole list to choose from.

If you prefer a more old-school approach, you could have a pretty notebook that you record 3-12 things you are grateful for every day. Some people like to write down good things that happen, along with things they are grateful for, and place them in a jar, so they can get them all out at the end of the year and read through them.

If you are religious, a daily prayer book would be a fantastic place to expand on your gratitude each day.

Where and how is up to you, there are literally thousands of options. Keep looking until you find one that suits your needs. You mind find you need an alarm on your phone to remind you every day, or maybe you want to leave your gratitude journal with your medication so you do both at the same time.

However I think if you commit to recording at least three things you are grateful for every single day for three weeks, you will start to notice a difference. Give it a try. What’s the worst that could happen?

Moving Forward

Next week, we are going to be looking at interpersonal relationships. Unsurprisingly, studies repeatedly show that interpersonal relationships have the single greatest impact on our happiness. People with good interpersonal relationships and a strong community live longer, are happier and are generally better off.

So next week I want to look at how to strengthen current interpersonal relationships and forge new ones. I want to look at the barriers many of us face when it comes to socialization and building relationships and I want to give you all some ideas for how to improve yours.

Jake, In Summary

I got into gratitude about 18 months ago and it really transformed my life. I have two main ways of tracking gratitude. First I use the app ‘Zest’ on my phone. Second, every day I write two pages in my prayer book, most of which is giving thanks for the things I have.

I am still working on showing gratitude to the people around me. I like to think I remember to say thank you to people, but unsolicited praise is still something I have to think about. It doesn’t come automatically. However when I do give unsolicited praise and gratitude, I find it greatly strengthens my relationships with people, making both me, and them, feel better.

The most profound difference for me, particularly since I started writing the two pages in my prayer book every day, has been a huge decrease in stress levels. The more I am grateful for what I have, the more time I take REMINDING myself of all the good things I have, the less stressed I am.

It becomes a constant stream of good news. And things that would have made me angry or stressed don’t anymore. Like when my dog pees on the veranda. Something that used to put me in a bad mood all day. Now I am glad to have him and make more time to play with him and pet him, because I am always being reminded how wonderful it is to have him with me.

As someone who is instinctively always planning for the worse, I think showing conscious gratitude has had the single greatest positive impact on my happiness. So I hope you will give it a try.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Happiness Series: 5 - You Are Unhappy Because You Aren't Doing What You Should

A lot of your unhappiness stems from the fact that, deep down, you know what you SHOULD do to fix your problems. You just don’t want to do it. Some of your reasons for not wanting to do it are valid, but that doesn’t change the fact that, despite all your complaining, you know the solution to your problems.

And that knowing, but pretending you don’t know, or it won’t work, is causing you cognitive dissonance.

You Can’t Really Lie To Yourself

I spoke in an earlier post about cognitive dissonance and how the brain can’t tolerate it, so when faced with proof that our beliefs are false, we are forced to come up with a new belief.

I gave them example of believing that good students do well at university, and believing that we are a good student.

But if we get a terrible grade, we have to change one of those beliefs. Either we have to say we are a bad student, or we have to change our belief that good students do well, instead believing the system is flawed and that the teacher showed favoritism or just doesn’t like us.

Lets say we went with the latter, but really it was the former. We didn’t study, we half-assed the assignment, doing it all the night before, and we haven’t been attending classes. But pride kept us from admitting that, and instead we are blaming the teacher for our low score.

Its easy to convince other people that you believe the teacher is corrupt. Its much more difficult to convince yourself. Even if you manage to make yourself really, truly believe it, you’ll always feel tension on this subject.

Because part of you knows its a lie. Part of you knows you didn’t work as hard as you should. Part of you knows, deep down, you are a bad student and your got the grade you deserved.

A Lie Is Clenching, A Truth Is Relaxing

There are several very popular self help books around that boil down to ‘tell the truth to yourself and everyone else and you will be happy’. I think this is at least partly true.

You never have to remember anything if you’re always honest. Being honest takes a lot less emotional energy.

Most people who know me—particularly in person—know I am a very honest person. I never hesitate to tell the truth. That’s not to say I go around offering it unsolicited and then pat myself on the back for being a jerk.

I am truthful for two reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, it is because when I was in my 20s, I decided to stop lying. I decided I wanted to be the sort of person who was always honest and if someone pressed me for information I didn’t want to give them, I would just say: ‘I don’t want to tell you’.

And my second reason is, because I am excellent at both spotting lies in other people, and in lying myself. I prefer to think of myself as a pathological story-teller, as apposed to a pathological liar. However as a small child I spent an ungodly amount of time convincing people of things that weren’t true.

Once, when I was four, my mother and I took a train. I was wandering up and down the carriage talking to people and my mother started to notice everyone in the carriage was looking for something. I had convinced a train carriage full of people that I had lost a live frog and they were all searching for it. Later in the same trip, she went to the bathroom on the station and came out to find the baggage handler searching the station for the same imaginary frog.

Even people who knew me well as a child, still came to my mother asking her if she was really keeping a pony on our small suburban block, or what we were going to do with the live emu chick I found and so on and so forth.

Being both extremely good at reading people, extremely good at coming up with narrative and (at the time) having an eidetic memory, made lying as easy for me as speaking. And, for the most part, it still is.

Furthermore, being able to read body language as well as I can, I always know when other people are lying. I almost never call people on it, unless it is going to inconvenience me in some very direct way. 

Being able to tell when people lie is not actually very nice. I saw a documentary last week where a man claimed he didn’t know who raped and murdered his daughter, but he had nothing to do with it. All lies. Now I am going to live with that for the rest of my life, knowing the case is closed and he is free. Knowing when people’s excuses not to see me, or compliments, are fake is annoying too.

But take it from an expert liar. Being 100% honest about everything is lighter. Its freeing. And its much more comfortable. The fears we have about people reacting badly to the truth are mostly unfounded.

However This Post Is About Self Truth

Being honest with yourself is one of the most relieving things you will ever do. Admitting the truth hurts. Sometimes when we are finally honest about things to ourselves, it comes with a lot of pain. You may cry or be angry or completely lose your shit about certain things. However remember you are only confessing things you already know and all those bad feelings are just bottled up inside you right now. Festering.

Once you let it out, you can begin the process of healing. Just like any abscess, it won’t heal right away. There may be weeks, even months, maybe years, of leaking pus and bad feelings. However you can’t heal until you lance that boil.

You can’t start taking the right steps to fixing a problem, if you won’t admit what the problem is.

You Probably Know What You SHOULD Do

The truth we so rarely admit is, we usually know what we SHOULD do to fix our problems, we just don’t want to. Maybe we don’t love our partner and we don’t see a future with them, but we don’t want to go through the trauma of a break up. So we keep trying to find other solutions. Even though we know its a problem we can’t fix with romantic dates and taking a dance class together. Worse, the person we’re dating may see all these things as a sign the relationship is going well. We know the only solution is to end the relationship, to let both people move on and find someone who feels a mutual passion. But still we make excuses. We delay. We try other things that we know won’t work.

Maybe you want to save up for something, but instead of putting X amount aside for two years, you think: “Two years is way too long, I’ll just do X and get the money I need in a lump sum.” But it never pans out. And two years pass, and because you never started putting money aside every week, you don’t have it. You still can’t buy that car or holiday. You’re still trying to find a ‘quick fix’ when you know, deep inside, the best and, realistically, ONLY way to get what you need is to save up a small amount every week for a few years. Its sensible, its reliable, and if you had started two years ago, you would have it by now.

Maybe you want a date, but you always cancel plans for events where you would be meeting new people.

Maybe you want a new job, but you haven’t even updated your resume or submitted it anywhere.

Maybe you want to write a novel, but you never actually do any writing in the three hours a week you set aside as writing time.

I don’t know what thing you aren’t doing that you know you should. However I know there is a thing. Probably several things. Maybe everything you have ever wanted in your life has been lost because you didn’t want to do the things you knew you had to.

That’s a painful thing to be honest to yourself about.

So Here Is A Little Exercise:

Think about one of the problems in your life that you are having. Now imagine someone else is having them. Someone who is different to you. In this case, the more different, the better. I would suggest thinking of someone you find it a little difficult to empathize with. Someone of another race and gender, perhaps. If you dislike Christians, imagine it is a fundamentalist. Maybe even write down their characteristics so this person is clear in your head.

The reason you are making them someone you wouldn’t like, is so you are as objective as possible. Imagine they have the same problem as you and have the same resources. Detach your emotions entirely from the problem and work out the most obvious, logical solution.

Work through these questions in order:

- What should someone else in your situation do? Be objective.
- What are all the reasons you don’t want to do that?
- What are the solutions to those excuses?

Moving Forward

The worst is over now. This was the last of the ‘reasons you are unhappy’ posts. You have learned about the basic biological function of all life to avoid pain and seek pleasure, you have accepted you would rather be right than happy, and that if you want to be both you have to change your beliefs, you have realized you can’t be unhappy unless you have something to compare your situation to and now you have confronted the fact that you are probably choosing to ignore the obvious solutions to your problems.

The hard parts are done and hopefully your life has improved vastly from these realizations alone.

Starting next week, we are going to look at how to actually be happier. Things you can do and change that will increase your sense of pleasure and purpose over time, according to science.

Jake, In Summary:

Taking responsibility can suck. Though, to be honest, I tend to go too far the other way, trying to take responsibility for problems that were well out of my control. Blame the weather on me and I will probably accept the guilt.

This is probably because 1) I am pretty narcissistic and 2) I have a hero complex that causes me and endless parade of problems. At the start of 2017 I made a lot of painful choices, cutting off some relationships that had become dangerously unhealthy. I had made friends who too many people who needed saving, who were only too happy to blame their problems on me. Some of those friendships recovered and are now fantastic, and some of those people are unlikely to become a part of my life again.

I saw one of them recently, and even though they showed the same needy ‘save me’ behaviors that drew me to them in the first place, I didn’t feel compelled to intervene. If that’s not personal growth, nothing is.

That said, I still love helping people who are willing to help themselves. Tell me you need me, and I am yours. I don’t think I will ever be able to cure that urge completely. However I am no longer going to let it tie me to people who don’t appreciate my help, and don’t want to take responsibility for their situation.

I still miss those people. I regularly think of them, and hope they will find what they need so we can be friends again, in a healthy way. But I am proud of my growth and I an definitely happier without those toxic elements. The important thing is, I know I created those toxic elements, not them. We had to both go seeking, and both contribute, to those toxic behaviors. It never would have happened if I hadn’t been complicit.

It was painful to admit, it was painful to cut those people off, but it has been worth it. I hope it will be worth it for you too.

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?