Social comparison has been with us since the beginning. Probably even the proto-hominids felt it. Now that we’re in the age of always-on social networking, it’s unavoidable. Everything has a photo or a video attached. Everywhere we look, there are pictures of smiling faces that look so much happier than ours. Parties we didn’t attend because we didn’t get an invite. Dinners and desserts we didn’t get to eat. Cute babies and pets. New cars. New clothes. Vacations. As far as we can tell, everyone else in the world is having a fantastic time – without us.
I’m a little mystified by envy because I like my life. Not to rub anyone’s nose in it or anything, but I’m pretty satisfied. I like my personal taste in music, books, and movies. I like wearing my favorite colors and eating my favorite foods. I enjoy myself while I do the things I like to do. Does that make sense? I put my effort into deciding what I do and don’t like, and then engaging in the stuff that works for me. I like flowers, so I walk around outside garden-spotting a lot. I like books, so I have a couple of library cards and I make time to read. I like to cook, so I make my own dinners every other evening. I like my husband, so I married him and I talk to him a lot. I don’t really spend much time thinking about what other people are doing, because I’m busy doing my life.
Would I want to be married to someone else’s husband? I doubt it. If I woke up with someone else’s ring on, the first thing I would do would be to wonder what my guy was doing and if I was allowed to call him.
Would I want to go on someone else’s vacation? Maybe! Give me a chance to look at all their photos and ask them to tell me all the stories about their trip. I might want to go there, too, but maybe at a different time of year. I might want to stay at a different hotel. I would probably want to eat at different restaurants, because I like what I like. What did those people do on their trip? I want a line-item veto before I copy their itinerary. I’m skipping the wine tour, the snorkeling, the nightclub, and the amusement park. Oh, how interesting. It turns out I’m going to the same place a different year – but in a different season, with different people, doing different activities. So, in other words, my dream vacation has nothing whatsoever to do with theirs.
Would I want someone else’s cute little baby? This is a touchy subject for me, because I found out when I was 19 that I probably wouldn’t be able to carry a pregnancy. Now I’m 40 and, indeed, I’ve never been pregnant. Surely I should be eaten up by envy of all the beautiful mommies with their adorable families to snuggle. I’m not, though. I don’t think the “biological clock” is real, or if it is, it’s not universal. I have plenty of friends my age who chose never to have children. I wondered once what a child of mine would look like. Then I realized that my kid would probably look a lot like my nephews or my niece, because the half of the genes they got from my brother are very similar to the half they would have gotten from me. Giving birth is an experience I’ll never have, but so is being a man, being tall, or having a different skin color. I have the life I have, and it’s the life I like.
I do envy other people’s parties and social gatherings sometimes. We relocate a lot, and almost everyone we know lives at least 400 miles away. It makes us appreciate even the most ordinary family get-togethers. These are the moments we’ll wish we could call back in the uncertain future. After we lose someone, we always wish we could hear their voice just one more time. We regret the birthdays and holidays we missed. There’s no way to get that time back. Enjoy it while you can, or you’ll wish you had. It really doesn’t get any better. This is all there is, and it’s enough. It has to be.
That’s really what it’s all about: enjoying what we have. We can’t cherry-pick anyone else’s life. We can’t just snap our fingers and trade attractiveness or personality with someone else. It’s the entire life package we’d get. We’d better be sure we know all the details before we sign the contract, that’s all I’m saying. It could very well be like Let’s Make a Deal, when you trade for Door #2 and get a goat instead of the new car. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being a goat, and hello to my Caprine-American readers). If you like the looks of my life, you’ll have to take my cancer scare, my 15-year battle with chronic pain and fatigue, my divorce, and my history with night terrors. Wouldn’t you rather just take notes on how I put all that stuff behind me and made something else for myself? There’s nothing automatic about beating illness, losing weight, building strength, paying off debt, building wealth, changing ineffective communication habits, or building a long-term romance. Every one of those things takes focus, hard work, knowledge, feedback, and the ability to consistently apply what you learn to your behavior.
I’ve come to terms with the parts of my life that I used to wish away. What I have that most people don’t is the grit, the determination, the perseverance, and the tenacity. I feel a bit sorry for people who have had an easy life, because there are no guarantees that things will stay that way. I am gradually learning the other skills, like relaxation and contentment. They’re much easier to pick up than my sheer cussedness and refusal to stay down where I was knocked down.
The worst fate I can imagine is to have been a child star. Look at the poor things. Being any kind of celebrity is just as bad. The paparazzi, the bodyguards, the betrayals when anyone you ever met sells you out to the tabloids. Being rich and famous means never knowing whom you can trust. No. Thank. You. I have what every famous person truly wants, and that’s liberty, privacy, and anonymity.
It’s not a zero-sum game. Anything worth having is there for the taking. Social skills can be learned. A positive attitude can be learned. New careers can be started. Love can be sparked and sustained. Friends can be met and kept. Foreign languages and art skills can be studied. There are only a few places in the world that require one of a limited number of permits, and there are plenty of beautiful places that don’t. The real trick is to take something average, or less-than, and make it into something beautiful. A rosebush instead of a patch of yellow grass, a potluck on an otherwise dull night, a song in the quiet. Forgiveness. Injustice corrected. One tiny corner of the world improved in one tiny way. Envy is a way of stating a belief in scarcity and unalterable fate.
Envy is a signal. “THAT! Give me some of THAT!” “DO WANT!” I have a touch of envy for people with straight hair, but realistically, if I was willing to spend half an hour a day, I could pretend I do. I envy people who have a sister, although my brothers are awesome, and what it tells me is that I should open myself more to friendships with other women. If I had had a sister, there’s no guarantee that we’d be close as adults. My ability to get along with family members is a better deal than some random trick of fate.
Envy can be a very powerful force that can launch us into a better life. If I envy your ambition, your hospitality, your abs, your wardrobe, or your lasagna recipe, I can go out and get some for myself. Maybe it will turn out that we appreciate the same things, and we can bond over that. I can’t begrudge you your workout or your career focus without admitting that there was effort involved, effort that I am capable of exerting.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's ass. Work on thine own ass.
There is one way that social comparison can lead to happiness, and that’s when we compare downward. I have two friends who are extreme pessimists, and whenever either of them complains about something that I would appreciate, I smile and shake my head. The haters and the trolls can be useful in that way. Some people are impossible to satisfy. There are those who resent everything and find every event either annoying or disappointing. There are those who can create drama out of thin air. There are those who make a habit of criticizing their mates and airing grievances in public. They’re entitled to do what they want and reap the consequences, just like the rest of us. It can be nice, though, to stop and consider how other people’s patterns of negativity reinforce undesirable patterns in their lives. That can help us to see the unhelpful, ineffective patterns in our own lives. What proportion of our results is determined by our attitude and behavior? The only way to know for sure is to make some changes and test it out.
Envy is a passion. There are better passions for the asking. The artist’s obsession. The athlete’s unrelenting drive. The nomad’s wanderlust. The entrepreneur’s vision. To be consumed by an idea that wants to be made real is a feeling like no other. Most of the outer traits that we envy in others were born of an inner fixation on a certain stream of energy. Other people have what we wish we had because their attention is attached more strongly than ours to family, health, friendship, career, or personal expression. When you drive, watch the road, not the car next to you. When you live, watch your own life. Aim for something in your future that your past self would envy.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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