Economists Sara Solnick and David Hemenway recently conducted a survey where they asked participants if they would rather earn $50,000 a year while other people made $25,000, or earn $100,000 a year while others got $250,000.
Sit down for this one. The majority of participants selected the first option. They would rather make twice as much as others, even if that meant earning half as much as they could have with the second option.
This is completely nuts, of course. Yet other findings by Solnick and Hemenway confirmed the envious nature of contemporary culture. People said, for instance, that they would rather be average-looking in a community where no one is considered attractive than merely good-looking in the company of stunners.
When it came to education, parents said they would rather have an average child in a crowd of dunces than a smart child in a class full of brilliant students.
What is going on here? In his book The Mind of the Market, Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer writes, “Our sense of happiness tends to be based on positional and relative rankings compared to what others have.”
There’s one problem, however. That doesn’t work.
As the philosopher Bertrand Russell pointed out, “Envy consists in seeing things never in themselves, but only in their relations. If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon, but Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed.”
Of all the dissatisfactions we face, surely none is more menial than envy. It denies us contentment, is a waste of time, and is an insult to ourselves. Worst of all, it’s completely self-imposed.
“Envy is the most stupid of vices,” wrote Honore de Balzac, “for there is no single advantage to be gained from it.”
Face it. We all know people who are smarter, fitter, richer, funnier, more talented, or better looking. But so what?
Thinking this way only keeps you from appreciating your own uniqueness and self-worth, things that, not incidentally, do lead to greater happiness. Especially when combined with a strong sense of purpose.
As Shermer writes, “Feeling ennobled is a pleasurable emotion that arises out of this deepest sense of purpose. Although there are countless activities people engage in to satisfy this deep-seated need, the research shows that there are four means by which we can bootstrap ourselves toward happiness through purposeful action.” These include:
- Deep love and family commitment
- Meaningful work and career
- Social and political involvement
- Transcendency and spirituality
Note that psychologists have yet to discover a route to happiness by comparing oneself to others. (Although it never hurts to measure yourself against your own ideals.)
Concentrating on your own fortunes – and improving those of others – is guaranteed to generate more satisfaction than sizing up the Joneses. Besides, if you knew everything the other guy was dealing with, you might prefer your own circumstances anyway.
In other words, don’t begrudge the other guy his blessings. Count your own, instead. As Mark Twain said, “Pity is for the living, envy is for the dead.”[Ed. Note: Alexander Green is Chairman of Investment U and Investment Director of The Oxford Club. Although he still writes investment commentary for both publications, he now tackles some of life’s more difficult challenges in his free, twice-weekly e-letter Spiritual Wealth. ]