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Can’t Compare

Jonathan Clements

COMPARISONS ARE the death knell of happiness—and they aren’t good for our wallets, either.

If we’re to get the most out of our time and money, we need to devote those two precious resources to things we consider meaningful. But how do we figure out whether something is indeed meaningful to us, and not a reflection of the influence of others?

For “meaningful,” dictionaries offer synonyms such as “important” and “significant.” What we’re talking about are things that have some special emotional resonance, and that’ll be different for each of us. But it strikes me that there are perhaps three dimensions.

First, it might be something we’re passionate about—church, a favorite charity, a political cause, our work. Second, it would include things we especially enjoy—travel, theatre, cooking, sports, clothes, hobbies. Third, it would encompass friends and family—the social fabric that ties our life together.

What resonates for you? Part of the answer is no doubt obvious. You likely care for your family to a degree that’s hard to put into words. You either think your work is meaningful or you don’t. You have charities you donate to year after year.

But often, we end up lavishing time and money on things we later realize aren’t important to us. Partly, that’s because our interests change over time. But it’s also because we realize things we thought we valued were actually things that reflect the influence of others.

We might have adopted our parents’ political beliefs, only to shed them later in life. We may have been drawn to a particular vacation spot by seductive advertising, only to discover it wasn’t all that special. We might have aped the lifestyle of those we admired or felt competitive with, only to realize it wasn’t the way we wanted to live.

I think this last error—mimicking celebrities, keeping up with the Joneses, showing off to the neighbors—is especially unfortunate. Not only can we end up devoting time and money to things we don’t truly care about, but also we can end up feeling worse about ourselves, thanks to the damage caused by comparisons.

That brings us to the Easterlin Paradox. In 1974, economist Richard Easterlin noted that, while standards of living had climbed over time, happiness hadn’t—because what people cared about wasn’t their absolute standard of living, but how they stood relative to others. Such envy is a worthy member of the seven deadly sins, not least because it causes us to be dissatisfied with our own situation and thwarts our efforts to declare “enough.”

Unfortunately, I fear we can never fully escape feelings of jealousy. But perhaps we could at least be more skeptical when we hear about the success of others. All too often, we assume that those with more money, fancier titles and great fame are happier. But when we focus on their outward success, we focus on just one aspect of their life—and we may be missing the true story.

A recent example: For a dozen years starting in the mid-2000s, we were bombarded with glowing stories about Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, and yet current litigation has revealed that the PR blitz covered up a far rockier relationship. But we don’t need to read about Brangelina to realize there’s often a disconnect between image and reality.

All of us know others who have apparently enjoyed greater worldly success. Do these folks have happier lives? We can never know for sure. There’s much that goes on behind closed doors that’s unseen by the rest of the world. But among the more successful individuals you know, I’m sure you’ve seen enough to have some sense of whether they’re enjoying life more than you—and I’d bet at least some strike you as less happy.

While we’re being skeptical of the façade presented by others, we should also take a closer look at our own choices. There are all kinds of things that, when I was in college four decades ago, I recall friends raving about and which I thought I liked, but I’ve since had second thoughts about: lying on the beach, heavy Italian food, traveling in the developing world, sports cars, going to and giving parties.

This, I believe, is one of the great benefits of growing older: We have a lifetime of experiences to reflect upon, and hence a more finely tuned sense of what’s a waste of our time and money—and what does indeed resonate.

Jonathan Clements is the founder and editor of HumbleDollar. Follow him on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook, and check out his earlier articles.

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