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Comparison is the thief of joy? Is your neighbour the problem?

What often triggers feelings of inadequacy? Is it when you try and do quick maths, navigate somewhere without help from your phone or does it come when you get sucked into the comparison game. 

Nothing quite amplifies feelings of inadequacy like scrolling through carefully curated feeds where people showcase only the highlight reel of their lives. What you see online isn't always an accurate representation of reality; it's often a polished facade.

My pondering is what people think would make them happiest may be just whatever their friends, neighbours, colleagues etc. are having plus a little bit more. 

But why?

"Keeping up with the Joneses" captures the urge to compare ourselves to those around us and strive to match or surpass their social status, possessions, or lifestyle. It's like feeling pressured to buy the latest gadgets or flashy items just because our friends or neighbours have them, even if we don't really need or want them. Essentially, it's about trying to keep pace with others in terms of material wealth or social standing.

Humans are inherently social beings, and throughout our evolutionary journey, social hierarchies and status were vital for survival and reproduction. Those who displayed signs of wealth or success often gained advantages in terms of status and resources, enhancing their chances for reproduction and pick of the bunch for mate selection. Thus, comparing oneself to others to ensure a competitive edge was crucial. How many of humanity's great advancements stemmed from individuals craving social status and recognition?

In modern society, our hardwiring may spur the "keep up with the Joneses" mentality. While we no longer live in small, tightly-knit communities, the inclination for social comparison and status-seeking behaviour remains deeply ingrained in human psychology. While status can be rewarding and motivating, it can also lead to pressure to acquire material possessions, pursue specific careers, or engage in conspicuous consumption to signal status within our social circles. In doing so, we may unwittingly chase others' dreams instead of our own. We may break our balls for things to beat other people rather than what actually creates lasting happiness.

Our ingrained desire for status is exemplified by the study that showed that when economy-class passengers board the front of the plane and have to walk through the upper echelons of first class, there are higher instances of rage. People's lack of status and the comparison to others is maddening. Many find it easier to chase status in a virtual world retracting from the physical world, a trend that I think will continue as humans continue our merge with machines. I recently watched the movie Her about human relationships with AI and found it all very plausible, I would highly recommend it. People spend their lives building status and skills in the virtual world of video games which shows just how addictive these status games can be.

Although there are undoubtedly benefits to a higher status, it's pretty important to recognise that comparison can steal our joy and gratitude for our own circumstances, especially if you punch an air hostess and you miss out on your holiday altogether.

We often compare our bloopers to others' highlight reels, failing to see the full picture.

Among the world's ten wealthiest men, thirteen divorces have occurred. Seven of these men have been divorced at least once (Morgan Housel). It's a reminder that what we see—the tip of the iceberg—doesn't reveal the struggles hidden beneath the surface. Even someone like Elon Musk, envied by many, acknowledges that the  others wouldn’t actually want to be him if they knew the whole picture.

"My mind is a storm. I don't think most people would want to be me. They may think they'd want to be me but they don't know, they don't understand."

What’s also interesting is that you are probably living many other people’s dream lives. Even people who have a substantial amount would probably trade places with you. Take Warren Buffett, renowned, respected, a master of his craft and one of the richest people alive, he was also born in 1930. So I would wager if you’re reading this and you were born after 1960 there are very strong odds if he could, Warren would trade places with you.

Classic Stoic wisdom suggests that "wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants" (Epictetus). While this holds true to some extent, it also feels like a bit of a cop-out. Having such little expectation that you are happy to sit there and do nothing is how it could potentially be taken in the wrong way.  There is a tension wanted the most but also finding happiness with a little to nurture ambition and pursue lofty goals in the hope of leading a fulfilling life and reaping the rewards of our efforts.

Ultimately, greater happiness may come not from comparing ourselves to others but from measuring our achievements against our maximum potential and continually pushing ourselves to grow. It's about striving for personal excellence rather than simply keeping up with external standards.

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