Bigger Stones, Bigger Happiness

What makes you happy? Your income? Where you live? The things you own? Your family? Your social status? The places you’ve been?

Happiness is Relative

A massive study on happiness was conducted a few years ago with thousands of people from more than 100 countries. Ed Diener, PhD, a researcher known as ‘The Happiness Doctor’ from the University of Illinois wanted to understand how much of happiness was cultural and how much was economic. What he discovered, in part, is that human happiness is impacted by several universal themes.

As you may imagine, people in wealthier countries were, in general, happier than those in developing nations. And, not surprisingly, people who identified as very religious tended to be happier if they lived in highly religious countries.

One of the universal truths Diener uncovered was a bit of a surprise: in every culture, your happiness is influenced by your perception of how you’re doing in relationship to your peers. In other words, every culture has its own version of Keeping Up with the Joneses.

This truth thrives in New York, London and Singapore.

It’s even conspicuous in Bora Bora, where local families identify wealth with large stones outside their homes; the larger the stones, the larger the wealth. Many of the good people of Bora Bora have stone envy.

Danger, Will Robinson…

It turns out that our perceptions are not always accurate indicators of reality.

At the heart of Keeping up with the Joneses is asymmetrical information. The knowledge we have of ourselves is far superior to the information we have of others. You could argue that each of us has a very discrete, detailed and complete understanding of our own lives. However, of the people around us, we have only perceptions, often vague ones.

When we compare ourselves to someone else, we don’t know how he or she is really doing – all we have is a perception of how they’re doing. Yet we compare that vague perception of them to a very specific and detailed view of us. That’s asymmetry, and it’s trouble.

Why? Because our happiness is influenced by these flawed comparisons. Let’s play this out.

At Home

For my 10th birthday, I wanted a GI Joe with the Kung Fu grip, in part because “all my friends” had one. (There’s a whole other story about social acceptance and the bandwagon effect in a future blog post.) I thought I would be happier if I could have the same toy that my best buddies had. My father said, “No. We can’t afford it and neither can their families!” It made no sense to me that my friends’ parents couldn’t afford GI Joe - because my friends had them.

In purely economic terms, my father may have been right, but it didn’t matter to me. What I saw with my eyes was all the proof I needed. The keeping up with the Joneses experience was created by visual evidence that my friends were already playing with their new GI Joe’s, even though behind the scenes, it was an economic hardship for their families. I was suffering from the US equivalent of Bora Bora’s stone envy. I construed the fact that I saw my friends with the toy as proof that they could afford it. I wasn’t taking into account that those families were in a similar economic situation as my own family. They were showing off a sign of wealth that probably wasn’t theirs to give. A big asymmetrical wedge.

Today, when I see a neighbor in a flashy new car or installing a new barbeque grill, my first reaction is, “Ah, she’s doing well!” In reality, I don’t know. She may be overspending her budget and under significant financial stress. She may have inherited money, or it might have been an award from her company. But her new car or her new grill are all the data points that I have to compare my own happiness to, and what I see is that she has something I don’t have and therefore, I often feel less happy.

At Work

We do the same thing in the office.

Our evaluations of other’s success are based on the same visual cues as my experience with my friends’ GI Joes. We see our peers moving into a new cubicle, traveling to great places, wearing expensive shoes, or working on prestigious assignments. But we don’t really know how they’re doing financially, we don’t know their actual performance at work or if they’re really happy. Our keeping-up-with-the-Joneses meter is informed by what we can see, and how that view compares to our understanding of our own wellbeing. Again: specific details of my situation, vague estimations of your situation. This is an asymmetry of perception and it lives in abundance at the office.

It is fallacious to think that we’ll be happier when our salary adjustment allows us to make the metaphorical move from Sam’s Club to the Country Club. All we really did was trade clubs. With the new club comes new comparisons and a whole new level of competition that requires us to spend our hard-earned pay to maintain. In most situations, our Joneses get notched up and we end up working harder and spending more to keep up with them.

The easiest – and least reliable – comparison we can make is money-based. And the simple truth is that money, per se, will never buy us happiness.

Obvious or Non-Obvious?

Since asymmetrical perception is at the source of unhappiness, the obvious cure is to stop comparing ourselves to our Country Club peers. In the ideal world, we would compare our current Country Club self to our old Sam’s Club peers.

But that’s not how our brains work. Once we’re astride the Country Club Joneses treadmill, it becomes our new worldview. We adjust to our new life with our new salary, our new cube, our new travel schedule, our new car. Also, what earned us the new salary is often our forward-thinking mindset and the belief that if we work hard now, the future holds great rewards for us. This state of mind diminishes our ability to compare our current self to our past self. Unfortunately, the obvious cure isn’t workable.

The less obvious cure comes from the employer. Behavioral sciences inform us that the way we are recognized at work can influence our happiness. Employees who are recognized for their effort with, say, a dinner for two on the company’s dime or a high-tech grill for the backyard, are happier at work than those who only get rewarded with money. In other words, our employer can help us be happier by the way they recognize our effort. Visible, social signs of success such as a new title, a new grill or dinner on the company’s dime allow us to enjoy the social image of success without having to pay for them. These signs help us feel less inadequate in our comparisons to coworkers for whom we have only partial information on, at best.

Don’t Judge The Book By The Cover

Diener’s study reminds us that keeping up with the Joneses is human. It is universally hard-wired into the DNA that makes us who we are. Although values vary from culture to culture, we all fall prey to having desires to ‘be’ like others for whom we have very little information. And all this is based on what we see, not what we actually know. Visual perception is an incomplete measure. It is asymmetrical in how it informs us.

Eliminating asymmetrical evaluation is unlikely. It’s difficult to imagine that we could stop comparing ourselves to the social signs of successful coworkers, neighbors or family members. However, we can benefit from pausing a bit and asking ourselves, “Is the tiny window of what I perceive to be their success that much better than my own?”

Returning to Diener’s research, one of the biggest contributors to your happiness is how you see yourself compared to others. Consider asking yourself who you’re comparing yourself to and why. Consider reminding yourself that the information you have on other people’s lives is limited, especially compared to the information you have on your own life. And, if you’re a leader in an organization, recognize effort and successes with visible, social signs of achievement. Life could end up being better because of it.