“Comparison is the thief of all happiness,” says former NFL star Joe Ehrmann in denouncing the pressures on boys to “be a man,” in the documentary The Mask You Live In.* Messages overt and covert from fathers down to video games leave males of all ages struggling with loneliness and fury. Similar pressures, I would add, weigh on females and most other human groups. Comparing ourselves to others haunts and hurts us all.
But there’s a catch: Comparison brings pleasure as well as pain. In How the Mind Works, psychologist Stephen Pinker concurs with the popular wisdom that “people are happy when they feel better off than their neighbors, unhappy when they feel worse off….You open your paycheck and are delighted to find you have been given a five percent raise—until you learn that your co-workers have been given a ten percent raise.” Happiness often lasts no longer than the tingle of the flattering comparison that brought it on.
So how are we to understand happiness if it is so frail, so dependent on where we stand in relation to others? Many people don’t puzzle over the nature of happiness very much; they view it as a self-evident goal that they can pursue, find, and remain in, as if it were a job or a house. “I just want to be happy.” I remember my surprise decades ago when a friend mentioned off-handedly that perhaps happiness is not the goal of life. The possibility had never occurred to me.
Happiness looks a little clearer quickly when we separate the two broad meanings of the word. One is satisfaction, as in “Overall, I’m happy with my life so far.” The other meaning is the emotional flush of joy or excitement, as in “happy dance.” Another understanding of happiness and how to reach it, one that does not depend on comparison to others, is the practice of mindfulness that many find to be a path towards contentment and joy.
For me, the evolutionary perspective is also enlightening. If unhappiness comes at us in so many shapes while happiness remains so elusive, a reason may be that for any organism, many more things can go dangerously wrong than can go blissfully right. Pinker: “There are twice as many negative emotions (fear, grief, anxiety, and so on) as positive ones, and losses are more keenly felt than equivalent gains….[P]eople’s mood plummets more when imagining a loss in their lives…than it rises when imagining an equivalent gain….[H]appiness tracks the effect of resources on biological fitness. As things get better, increases in fitness show diminishing returns: more food is better, but only up to a point. But as things get worse, decreases in fitness can take you out of the game: not enough food, and you’re dead” (392).
So it’s not that happiness eludes us soley because comparisons steal it or we are incapable of finding it. It’s that we come into life in the first place equipped with alarm bells for all the gritty dangers and with only a selection of pleasures.
*Teddy Roosevelt is credited with the original version: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”