And while I don't mean a word of that, I'm not talking nonsense either. Happiness is a comparative concept. Can't have happy without sad, right? We are all geared to measure our own success against that of our peers, and if we aren't coming first, we're losing.
If you don't believe me, ask the whole world. According to a recent study of happiness and suicide in American states, people surrounded by contentment and joy are at a higher risk for suicide. (This study was conducted by researchers from the UK's University of Warwick, the US's Hamilton College, and the Reserve Bank of San Francisco. They studied data for over 1 million people across America.)
Indeed, you might remember I recently identified Denmark as the happiest nation in the world, but their suicide rate is no lower for it. It sits in the mid-range by comparison with other countries (here's Wikipedia's chart of suicide rates by country).
Why would you kill yourself in a country where everyone's s'darn cheerful all the time? Easy answer. If you feel rotten, and everyone around you seems so disgustingly happy with their lives, you get to feeling even worse about your own situation. What's wrong with you? Why can't you get it together? Everything's so frickin' great, right, so what's your frickin' problem!?
If you're shaking your head right now, thinking, "But I take joy in the happiness of others", try this. Think of an old ex of yours. A relationship that really mattered to you. After the breakup, who won? Come on, you know there's a winner. The one who got laid first. The one who moved on first. The one whose life improved after the breakup. If it wasn't you, then you know exactly what I'm talking about - that feeling of self-loathing that comes from not doing quite as well as the next guy. And you have to admit that a part of it has to do with imagining the next guy looking at you, congratulating himself on doing better than you did. Maybe even judging you for doing comparatively badly.
We can't stop ourselves from comparing. It's natural and automatic to compare our own achievements to others'; to measure our wealth, our assets, our abilities and natural talents to those of the people around us. We genuinely do keep score, even for things over which we have no control.
For those of us who struggle with the sads, the take-home message is this: comparisons are inevitable, so choose your matches wisely. Don't compare yourself to freakishly high achievers. Don't fixate on that one amazing guy you know who has a charmed life (or his goddamned gorgeous perfect girlfriend... y'all know who I'm talking about)!
Another recent study, this time a piece of experimental research from Carnegie Mellon University, found that people had the power to choose positive comparisons in order to make themselves feel happier about what they had. The researchers simulated a small lottery: basically, participants chose a scratchie and won a few dollars from it, but were also shown what they could have won if they'd chosen the other scratchie.
When people won less than they could have, they were quite likely to rationalise this in a positive way: "Well, sure, I didn't win the seven bucks - but hey, I'm still walking out of here three dollars richer. Better than nothing!"
And that's it right there: better than nothing. But it takes effort and presence of mind. The researchers ran the same type of experiment but gave the participants an additional, mentally-taxing activity to do while playing the lottery game. This time, people were far less likely to see the bright side. They were stressed, too overloaded with responsibility to see it any other way than "I lost".
Which sounds pretty familiar, right? And when we do try to focus on finding those favourable comparisons, we pick some pretty appalling cases to boost our own self-esteem. Two words: tabloid magazine. If those gorgeous, glossy, glamourous goddesses are getting zits, losing their men and failing at life, then we're winning. Aren't we? People have used celebrity gossip as a source of comfort for centuries now. But it does not work. Why? Because celebrities are totally irrelevant. It's a false comparison, because no matter whether we're safely married and they're embroiled in a costly divorce, they are still richer and famouser (and possibly hotter) than we will ever be. They aren't our peers. They don't care to know how we're doing, and frankly, it's no fun if you can't gloat just a little bit.
(That is why the shittiest thing an ex can say to you is "I'd really like you to be happy for me". No! Fail, and then I'll be happy.)
Please don't judge me, but I have the somewhat twisted habit of comparing myself to fictional characters. Yeah, so how's Willow doing? She's 22, she hasn't got a job, she hasn't finished her degree, she's single (except her girlfriend kinda got shot). I'm up to postgrad now, and I have a job, at least... oh, but she's got magical powers and has assisted in averting like six apocalyses. That's probably N/A to me. Darn.
No: we need to learn to harness our comparative urges. Don't go applying them willy-nilly to every genius or dropout we can think of. Like it or not, we will always care about how our grades stack up against others - but we do have the power to set the criteria.