KE, part 2 (Evaluating Happiness by Comparison)

I have promised a few people that I would come back to the project of re-editing my and re-blogging my old series from elsewhere serializing the digest version of the manuscript I have written over the years providing ethical instruction to my younger son, Kristian. I started this a month ago, and having now got a bit of political and theoretical reaction to what I see as silly ideologies out of my system, it’s time to continue with this –– setting aside my problems with what others believe and systematically laying out some basics of what I believe in myself.

I basically believe that personal happiness is a goal all of the best ethicists (as well as some of the worst ethicists) since Aristotle have been concerned with, but few have seriously worked through the psychological and practical implications and applications of what it takes to make us happy even as far as Aristotle himself did it. So in doing my part to try and fill this gap I’ve formulated the 5 Cs (comparison, comfort, control, confidence and connection) mentioned in the intro last month. I believe that each of these really deserves an essay unto itself.

So I start out here looking at the item which represents the weak end of the scale –– the thing we turn to for happiness that in the end provides us with the least satisfactory results: happiness by way of comparison. We all have a semi-controllable urge to match ourselves up against others to see who is tallest, fastest, richest, strongest, prettiest, smartest, funniest, most coordinated or whatever else. This is in some ways one of our most infantile and yet most enduring forms of motivation in life. It begins with our inborn instinctive urge to imitate others. As I wrote for Kris years ago:

…a common sight in daycare center play rooms is a toddler who doesn’t talk very well yet sitting alone, miserable and bored in a room full of toys. He cheers up some though when another child, perhaps a slightly older one, comes along and starts to play with one of the toys there––let’s say for example a toy fire truck. The first kid, who had no interest the thing a moment before, suddenly realizes that the most important thing in his little world at that moment is the fire truck that the other kid has. He might look for a similar one for himself from the toy box so as to play together, but the more likely reaction is for him to do everything in his power to get that truck away from the child that is playing with it. What this kid who has just turned aggressor isn’t capable of realizing though is that what makes the little fire truck so interesting to him is not so much its bright color, its exciting motion or the different sounds that it can make, but simply the fact that the other child is playing with it! If he wins, once the other child is no longer playing with it the fire truck will cease to be so important. If it was any other way the first kid would have already been playing with it before the newcomer’s arrival.


We’ve all witnessed the same sort of behavior with children of both genders and all ages: wanting something just because we see others with the same. A recent study conducted by a Finnish newspaper concluded that the most reliable indicator of what sort of car a person is likely to buy is what they see their neighbors driving on a day to day basis. This is basically the same motivational force in play. And though these examples are stereotypically male ones, the comparison urge is, if anything, even stronger among the females of our species.

This drive to compare ourselves with others generally takes two primary forms: 1) striving for equality: the need to similar to or to be as important as, or have as much as the next guy; and 2) striving for excellence: pushing ourselves to be better than the next guy at something at least. In fact as a teacher I use both as means of motivating students. Sometimes I will say things like, “I know you aren’t that interested in this stuff, Peter, but if everyone else can sit still for 10 minutes, you can too.” Or then I will have contests to see which team within the class can remember the most from the previous month’s lessons. As comparison is such an integral part of students’ psyches, why not at least use it to some practical advantage?

So what’s wrong with basing our happiness on comparison with others then? Well, plenty.

First of all there are all the stupid things that kids do, particularly in their early adolescence, as part of trying to “fit in”: trying to impress their friends by ignorantly experimenting with beginners’ versions of sex and drugs and rock and roll––smoking, drinking, seeing how much nasty language they can get away with, and ignoring basic safety rules their parents taught them as part of an unofficial competition to show how bold and daring they can be. As anyone over 16 probably knows already, these are not reliable ways of finding long-term happiness in life. Yet in spite of knowing that these things don’t work as means of staying happy, many people never manage to outgrow this sort of behavior.

Then there is the sheer misery of what Americans used to call “keeping up with the Joneses.” People live in slavery to having the same sorts of toys that the neighbors have, even if they have no practical use for them, just as a matter of fitting in.

Sprint cheaters anonymous… when winning isn’t the main thing, but the only thing.

Then, when it comes to being “a winner” the problem is that the glory never lasts. In the 90s Carl Lewis was the world’s best sprinter and a sporting legend, taking the moral high ground after Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson became the first Olympian stripped of a gold medal for doping. But now Lewis himself has been stripped of his medals for the same offences Johnson committed, and since Usein Bolt has come along the public has pretty much forgotten that Lewis ever existed. The ancient Greeks gave their champions laurel leaves rather than gold or silver to symbolize this very fact: the glory and joy that go with victory are very fleeting.

Beyond this, as a Christian I have a particular respect for the teachings of Jesus, but even for non-believers the moral lessons he taught in story form deserve special consideration for their moral wisdom and historical influence on Western thought. One of these stories in particular is specifically about the problems of comparison. It’s commonly called “the parable of the workers in the vineyard,” recorded in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 20. In my own paraphrased version it goes something like this:

During his peak season, a local wine producer went into town early one morning and recruited some temporary workers to put in a long, hard twelve-hour day on his estate picking grapes. He promised them a wage that was somewhat above what they could normally have expected, and they gladly hopped into his wagon and went on out to work for him.

During the course of that day the vineyard owner made four more trips into town, and –– more out of concern for the local unemployment problem than for his actual labor needs it seems –– he hired on a few more extras each time, right up until one hour before quitting time. At the end of the day then, this employer told his paymaster to line the men up, and starting with the most recent arrivals and working down to the first comers, to pay them all the same wage promised to those who he had picked up first.

Well, the fellows at the end of the line got rather upset about this arrangement, and like any modern trade union would do, they started yelling, “No fair!  Those newcomers are getting over ten times as much pay as us for the amount of work that they did!  If you can afford to throw away money like that then we deserve a bonus!”

They made such a fuss that eventually the owner had to come out to quiet them down.  “Look,” he said, “this morning you agreed that I was paying you a more than reasonable wage. Now if I want to be generous to those who I hired on at the last minute what right do you have to try and stop me?  It’s really none of your business how much they get. Just take your own money and enjoy it!”

Can we get rid of all competition and comparison as elements of human psychology? Of course not!  Nor certainly should we. I can’t even write this sort of essay without littering it with terms of comparison!Beyond that, I’m all for such forms of entertainment as watching a good ball game and screaming at my lungs out in support of my favored team. What I’m saying is that we need to recognize that this doesn’t work as a primary source of happiness in life.

Those who base their lives trying to pick out winners and losers, so as to be able to identify themselves more closely with the winners, ironically end up being the world’s biggest losers, regardless of what form of competition they peg this to. Those who spend their lives making sure no one gets more than anyone else, if they have any success in this fool’s errand, inevitably end up holding everyone back and making everyone miserable in the process. While using comparison as a tool for gaining greater efficiency and as a source of extra spice and excitement in life, we also need to live beyond this level of satisfaction. There needs to be more in life than just being the same as or trying to be better than everyone else.

It should also be pointed out that those who destroy their bodies in trying to prove how much faster or stronger they can be than the next guy aren’t the only ones whose lives get destroyed by competition. Particularly destructive to the world we live in these days are those who need to prove to themselves and each other that they can make more money than the next guy. This abstract form of competition leads to the destruction and hoarding of natural resources that are in limited supply, and that we all need in order to survive, just so some guy can try to prove to competitors at his country club, or in his alumni association, or on the Forbes 100 list, how successful he is. There are millions of people around the world today suffering and dying as a direct result of the comparison games western millionaires feel compelled to play with each other.

This is not to say that there is anything wrong with financial success per se. To claim that all millionaires are crooks is not true either, and to be motivated by envy of millionaires while condemning them for being motivated by comparison would be the height of hypocrisy. As we will see in future installments in this series, money can serve many other functions than enabling comparison. Those other forms of happiness can be far less destructive and provide far more lasting happiness than continuous personal competition for attention.

There is also something to be said for the sort of competition which requires someone to be the best they can be in order to get a particular job or sell a particular service. At that sort of moderate level competition within society brings out the best in all of us and enables us to provide each of us to acquire higher quality goods and services than we would if we lived in a purely command based economy. This does not, however, justify children dying of starvation and preventable diseases, families going bankrupt from medical expenses and school teachers being laid off due to budget cuts so that billionaires can pay 30% less taxes. There is no justification for someone who makes more than a thousand times more money than most honest workers within the economy to complain about contributing to meeting the very basic needs of others, even if they are forced to do so. If an addiction to competition keeps people from seeing that point, it really is time to tone down the competition by a notch or two.

Of course if someone out there has a better idea of how to base your happiness on competition… I’d be willing to listen.




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Filed under Ethics, Happiness, Philosophy, Priorities, Sustainability

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