My friend Jacob said something wise to me yesterday.
We were talking about doing good work, reaching for success, and striving for peace in life. Jacob is one of the most successful people I know, but more than that, he’s one of the happiest.
Here’s what Jacob told me:
The best life is one free of comparison.
Many people miss out on happiness because they don’t understand this simple idea. You can’t blame them–humans are born with an innate drive to compare themselves to other people. There’s all kinds of research to back this up.
I saw one study where people played a game where they could win or lose money by picking three different doors. The twist was they also saw the results of another player. This study found that even people who won money exhibited feelings of loss if someone else won more.
Likewise, people who lost money felt like they won if someone else lost more.
It seems like people care less about gaining or losing in absolute terms than they care about comparing their progress to other people.
Maybe you’ve seen evidence of this in your own life.
Another study found people’s brains respond with activity resembling physical pain when contemplating the success of someone with higher social standing. We actually physically hurt when we see someone else more successful than ourselves.
Don’t feel too bad about it–even monkeys act this way. Capuchin monkeys are happy to work for cucumbers until they see another monkey earn a grape.
On the other hand, who wants to be a monkey?
We may naturally compare ourselves to others, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Science is showing us that even successful people can’t enjoy their success if they spend their energy envying those who are even more successful. The flip-side is just as bad. Celebrating our relative success over others brings fleeting rewards, and warps our ability to have genuine relationships.
What we’re talking is about two ways of looking at success.
- One road starts with competing, the other with creating.
- One journey is fueled by winning, the other by growing.
When we tell our inner monkey to relax, we can truly celebrate the successes of other people, and in doing so build intimate friendships. We gain the ability to truly mourn with those who mourn, without secretly gloating that we’re better off.
It’s centered on the idea that there’s not enough to go around, and the only way to have is to take. It leads to winner-take-all models of success, where happiness is at the end of the longest driveway leading to the biggest house, where the most expensive car is parked.
Here’s the problem:
only one person can have the biggest house, and the person who has it is either scared of losing it or imagining one bigger.
A balanced life stops looking for happiness as some around-the-corner byproduct of achievement or gain. Instead happiness is found in the present, in the service of peace. Work stops being a means of achievement and starts becoming a part of fulfillment. Relationships aren’t connections to network, but companions to enjoy.
When we stop comparing, life stops being a race to a finish line and becomes an adventure we share with others.
I’ve stopped comparing my cucumbers to other people’s grapes. I’ve got more cucumbers than I need anyway. When I am lucky enough to receive a grape, I make a habit of sharing it instead of gloating.
The best life really is one free of comparison.