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drawing and sketch about happiness, social comparison, and Sisyphus

❝Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe.❞ -David Foster Wallace

The 2009 movie The Joneses is about a fake family, the Joneses, who move into a neighborhood and use high-end luxury goods so that their neighbors would become envious and also buy those products. It’s about using the "keeping up with the Joneses" theme to sell things.

It seems silly and couldn't possibly work. Or could it?


If I may, I’d like to state the obvious. You know exactly what it feels like to be you.

drawing, sketch, and stick figure about you

This is because you are at the center of all your experiences. You know what it feels like to be afraid, joyous, in pain, nervous, excited, and so on. You may not have the vocabulary to articulate precisely what you’re feeling, but the raw sensations are there.

drawing, sketch, and stick figure about you being at the center of your experiences

Thus, if you are experiencing any financial stress, you know exactly how much stress you have and what that stress feels like.

drawing and sketch about you knowing what your stress feels like


This is the same for everybody else, of course. Others are at the center of their own experience and know what it feels like to be them. But you can’t know what it feels like to be them. Any experience that someone else has needs to be communicated to you somehow. And even in a world where that could be perfectly communicated, you still can’t experience it because you are one step removed.

drawing and sketch about how others' experiences have to be communicated to you

So even though you know others may experience stress, you don’t know how much and can’t know what it feels like.

drawing and sketch about how you don't know how much stress others experience

The Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire measures your level of mindfulness among five interrelated components. These components are observing, describing, acting with awareness, nonjudgment of inner experiences, and not reactivity to inner experiences. They can be helpful in gaining an understanding of the areas of mindfulness in which you may want to focus.


To state the obvious again, you have a life. But what does that mean? What does it mean to have a life, and what is the human condition?

drawing and sketch about your life

In every life, there will be good times and bad times. There are good parts to life, and there are bad parts to life. This is a given.

Stress is part of the human condition, and many argue it is part of a fulfilling life. And yet, in the moment, stress doesn’t feel like a good part of life. It’s part of what we might call the bad part of life. It may be part of what makes the good parts of life so good.

No matter how we slice it, life happens.

drawing and sketch about how your life has good and bad parts

This is not just true for us; everybody experiences the human condition. There are good parts and bad parts to every life.

drawing and sketch about others' lives have good and bad parts

When it comes to money, though, people don't want to talk about it. Money is a taboo topic; even more taboo than religion, sexuality, politics, or health issues. Money touches every area of our lives, so it's nearly impossible not to accidentally signal something about your financial life.

drawing and sketch about how money is not an acceptable conversation topic

Now we have a situation where others experience financial stress, but because money is taboo, nobody talks about it.

drawing and sketch about how people won't talk about the bad parts of their lives

If nobody talks about the negative aspects of their life, then from the outside, it appears that there are no negative aspects to their life.

drawing and sketch about how we perceive others' lives as being all good

Remember, you know exactly what it's like to be you. You feel all the stress and other negative aspects of your life. That's the version of you (the real version) that you compare to others (the no-stress version).

drawing and sketch about comparing our whole lives to the curated version of others' lives

It feels like you're the only one who feels stress or the only one with negative aspects to your life.

We feel stress, and others don't. That's what it feels, so we try to close that gap; we start to do what they do. We try to keep up with those proverbial Joneses.

drawing and sketch about the perception that everyone experiences less stress than us


We are hardwired to know where we fit into a given hierarchy. This dates back thousands of years to when our ancestors lived and tribes. In those days, it was actually essential to know where you fit in the tribe.

However, we are not living in tribal times anymore. It's just that our brains haven't kept up. We're hardwired to not really notice what we have and instead notice what we don't have. People around us are the people we end up comparing ourselves to. With social media, the number of people we compare ourselves to has expanded exponentially.

drawing and sketch about how we don't notice what we have and experience envy for what we don't have

Now, we find ourselves in a situation where we know exactly what it feels like to be us; we can feel our own stress, others don't seem to have any stress, and we find ourselves wanting the stress-free existence that they seem to have.

drawing and sketch about how our perception of others' less stress makes it seem like they are doing things right

In other words, we craft a straightforward argument in our minds that only has three premises; 1) I want to be happy, 2) I'm not happy, 3) they look happy. Conclusion: I should do what they're doing.

drawing and sketch about how we compare ourselves to others

This is a trap, though. Everybody experiences stress and negative aspects of life. The type of stress and how the negative aspects of life show up will differ from person to person, but everybody experiences stress.

drawing and sketch about how everyone experiences stress

In fact, while you are busy trying to do what others are doing, they are trying to do what you're doing. This is the paradox. With everybody at the center of their own experience and nobody able to experience what anybody else does, everybody thinks someone else has it better off.

drawing and sketch about how our perception of others having no stress is how others perceive us

This continues until everybody ends up in a vicious vortex called the "Keeping Up With the Joneses" game. The vortex sucks everybody down to a life of regret.

drawing and sketch about keeping up with the Joneses leads to a vortex of regret


Everyone has a choice, though. We can choose a different benchmark. We can compare ourselves to previous versions of ourselves instead of our perception of other people. We can experience gratitude for where we are in life and what we have.

Expressing gratitude for what we have does not mean we can't keep working for more. It just means that we don't have to feel bad while on the journey. We can simultaneously express gratitude for where we are while at the same time working for something more.

Or, we decide that we don't need what the Joneses have. We can be happy with what we have. Both are fine.

drawing and sketch about how gratitude is an antidote to social comparison

When we choose to look inside ourselves and find out what's really important to us, we can begin to live a life that is in line with our personal values. The most common regrets people have toward the end of their life or that they worked too hard and lived a life they thought they were supposed to live rather than one they wanted to live. Understanding this means that you can choose valued living today so you don't have to experience regret at the end of your life.

drawing and sketch about connecting life and values

Using yourself as a benchmark is hard work at first, but it is well worth it. It means that you acknowledge that you understand what your values are while understanding that everybody has different values. You and your neighbors can value different things and still be friends.

Spend some time to understand what's important to you and how you can design your life so that you don't care about what the Joneses are doing.

You get one life; live intentionally.


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Related Reading
References and Influences

Ariely, Dan & Jeff Kreisler: Dollars and Sense

Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis

Hanh, Thich Nhat: You Are Here

Hanson, Rick & Richard Mendius: Buddha’s Brain

Harris, Dan: 10% Happier

Harris, Sam: Waking Up

Krueger, David & John David Mann: The Secret Language of Money

Newcomb, Sarah: Loaded

Peterson, Jordan: 12 Rules for Life

Stanley, Thomas & William Danko: Millionaire Next Door

Wallace, David Foster: This is Water

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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