Reality Check: Your Happiness and Other People’s Stuff

An application of choice theory called WDEP starts with, “What do you want?”

Different people want different things. Taking the time to first identify what you want helps you choose what actions to take to get it.

“What you want” is certainly not limited to material things. Perhaps you want an improved relationship, more peace of mind, or to become a more helpful, generous person. It’s your life; you get to choose what you want.

However, how you define your wants can have a lot to do with your happiness.

Let’s say that you want to swim on hot days. You shop for a swimming pool, see what it costs, and decide whether the happiness you will gain is worth trading your hard-earned money.

You may decide to buy it, or you may decide to put off the purchase. Or, you may decide it’s not worth it at all; you can swim in the ocean. Your choice and your happiness is within your control.

Now let’s say instead that what you want is a swimming pool that’s better than your neighbour’s. This is quite a different scenario. Why? Because you have relinquished control of your own happiness and put it into the hands of your neighbour!

So you buy a better pool; you’re temporarily happy. But then, your neighbour upgrades his pool; suddenly you are envious again! Your happiness wasn’t based on what you have, but on a comparison—your possession compared to your neighbour’s.

Think about that. You voluntarily removed control from your own hands and gave it away. Do you really want to do that?

I think that comparisons are particularly tempting when we’re surrounded by people we’ve known all our lives. We watch our peer group grow up, go through school, go to work. We see relationships develop and sometimes split. Children and grandchildren come along. And all along the way, we acquire things.

Dr. Joel Wade refers to a study that concluded, “The higher the income of others in one’s age group, the lower one’s happiness.”

Now really, why would we let what someone else has interfere with our happiness? When we choose to define our happiness by comparing ourselves with another, we are giving up control.

As Dr. Wade puts it, “Envy presumes your own impotence.” Whether you are envious of someone’s social status, relationships, position at work, or their “stuff,” when you envy another, you’re telling yourself that you don’t have what it takes to get that for yourself.

Further, if you then act in counter-productive ways, such as going into debt to outshine someone else, who has then taken charge of your life?

Such behaviours can be particularly destructive for a relationship if the partners don’t agree on what happiness looks like. If happiness for you is a pool that’s better than your neighbour’s, but happiness for your partner is money in the bank, then conflict is likely your reality. However, if both partners also want a good marriage, an examination of what each of you wants might be a helpful way to start.

If you find yourself thinking, “I wish I had what he has,” ask if that’s helpful. Can you use the thought as motivation? Or is it harmful, bringing resentment, demotivation, or anger?

Do you compare yourself with others, particularly others in your age group or social group? Does it have an impact on your happiness?

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