❝We may not be able to stop measuring ourselves against others, but we can decide which yardstick we use to measure.❞ -Mark Manson
I'm sitting down playing The Eagles' Hotel California on my ukulele. At least, I'm trying to play it. I'm not a very good musician, but it's fun to try. Playing rhythm ukulele is fun, but I don't have any melody to along with it. Singing would be the obvious way to get some melody, but unfortunately, I can't sing.
I realize that the ukulele is sometimes thought of as a toy instrument or children's instrument. Wouldn't it be fun, I think, if I combined toy instruments and learned how to play them really well. I think maybe the kazoo makes sense. If I can learn to play the ukulele and the kazoo at the same time, that would be funny to see, especially if I could surprise people by doing it well.
That sounds like a pretty fun little niche to pursue. After all, how many people play the ukulele and kazoo at the same time? But then I happened across this video on YouTube by somebody who goes by the Kazoo Guru.
All of a sudden, I realize I'm never going to be that good. Seeing him perform Creep with an ukulele and a kazoo shatters my confidence. I wonder if it's even worth trying.
I snapped out of it quickly, realizing that this is somebody I can learn from. But, the gut reaction of feeling bad because of an unfair comparison is real and common.
MONEY AS A PROXY FOR HAPPINESS
It's hard to look at somebody and know if they're happy, satisfied with their life, have good relationships, or live a meaningful life. Humans are ultrasocial creatures, and it's hardwired into us to compare ourselves to others. Since we find it difficult to compare how happy we are to how happy somebody else is, we take an easier route. We use money as a proxy for happiness and life satisfaction.
Our parents have done it, their parents did it, and so now we feel like this is the default. People tend to think that success will lead to happiness and that money will make us feel successful. Once we start using money and status as a proxy for happiness, we end up on what is known as a hedonic treadmill, where we can keep on running without getting anywhere.
A grateful person exhibits certain trails. Rather than feeling deprived in life, a grateful person experiences a sense of abundance. A grateful person acknowledges the contributions of others to his/her success and well-being, appreciates life's simple pleasures, and acknowledges the importance of experiencing and expressing gratitude.
STATUS IS A GAME YOU CAN'T WIN
There is no logical end when we pursue status as a way to feel like we've succeeded in our lives. Chasing status, money, and success to try to find happiness is kind of like trying to roll a large boulder uphill, only to have it roll back down as soon as we achieve what we thought we wanted. It leads to tunnel vision where we only see the people who have more than us, and there will always be somebody with more. Even if you find somebody who doesn't have more money than you, you'll likely find that they have more time than you do, or more friends, or spend more time in nature.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND SOCIAL COMPARISON
Social comparison has always been around and always will. This is where the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" comes from. In fact, it used to be the literal Joneses who were our neighbors that we would compare ourselves to. Then, television programs gave us a peek into how others lived outside of our neighborhood. Extreme versions of this include Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous in the 80s and 90s and MTV Cribs in the 2000s. This gave us a glimpse of how other people were living and gave us something to want.
Then social media came around, which gave us a glimpse of how our friends live their lives. Except it's not their whole lives that we are seeing. We're only seeing a curated version of their lives. In other words, people don't go out to social media to brag about how crappy their life is. Instead, they'll post on social media only those aspects of their lives that they think are impressive and will collect likes and shares. Photos that get posted will be cropped, so only the best aspects are shown. Filters are used to make them look better.
While we may do the same thing, we know what our whole life feels like. When we compare our lives as a whole to the lives we see on social media, it's an unfair comparison that prompts FOMO (fear of missing out) and envy.
PLAY YOUR OWN GAME
The antidote is to play your own game. Author Mark Manson writes that since we are social animals, we can't get away from comparing ourselves to others, but we can choose the metric we're using to measure. That is totally up to us. This will be different for everyone. For example, there may be people who have more wealth and money than you have, but they don't have as much family time as you do. Or, there may be people who get more time off but aren't as happy as you. What we choose to focus on and use as our yardstick determines the quality of our lives.
The Minimalists Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus offer us another suggestion in their book Essential. They asked us to stop anchoring our lives to our jobs. That sounds easy, but it's hardwired into us. When we first meet someone, most of us ask some version of the question, "What do you do for a living?" It may sound innocent and harmless, but it is indirectly asking about money and status. It's a way of figuring out how we compare relative to the other person. Their advice is to ask instead what people are passionate about, and answering the question with a reframe. Suppose somebody asks me what I do. I can say, "I'm passionate about the outdoors and live music. What are you passionate about?"
CONNECT TO YOUR VALUES
Whichever yardstick you choose to measure your personal success, it should connect to your personal values. It should connect to those aspects of life that are the most important to you. For some people, it might be quality time with family; for others, it might be time spent in nature, or it might be freedom and autonomy.
It's easy to compare yourself to others, and in fact, you're not going to be able to stop. What you can do, though, is change the metric you use to compare. Money is too easy to use and often backfires. Talking instead in terms of our values and tying our lives to them will make us happier.
You only have one life; live intentionally.
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Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences
Ariely, Dan & Jeff Kreisler: Dollars and Sense
Ben-Shahar, Tal: Being Happy
Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier, No Matter What
Hagen, Derek: Money’s Purpose in Your Life
Hagen, Derek: Your Money, Your Values, and Your Life
Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis
Housel, Morgan: The Psychology of Money
Klontz, Brad & Ted Klontz: Mind Over Money
Lukianoff, Greg & Jonathan Haidt: The Coddling of the American Mind
Manson, Mark: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck
Stanley, Thomas & William Danko: Millionaire Next Door
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. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.