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Passion, People and Principles

Happiness is Relative

post # 372 — May 9, 2007 — a Careers, Managing post

There have been a number of studies in recent years showing that, while people in many countries are getting richer, they are not necessarily getting happier. The research seems to show that, for most people, apparently, happiness lies not in the absolute amount of “rewards” you have, but in whether or not you have more or less than others.

If you have more than those you compare yourself to, then you will be a happy person. If you have less, you will be unhappy.

This matches what I tend to see. CEOs with obscene paypackets are unhappy until they have matched what is considered “normal” among other CEOs. Lawyers from modest beginnings, making more than a million dollars a year or more, can get depressed and resentful because they are not earning what investment bankers earn.

The issue is not just about money, but many forms of the world’s rewards and recognitions. Academics and other authors can be (and are) jealous the (non-monetary) respect and recognition that is accorded to their (perceived) competitors’ work. Socially, in their personal lives, people are always playing the game of “keeping up with the Jones':” being content with what they’ve got, until their neighbor has more.

All of this points out something rather interesting for managing oneself and others. If happiness comes from “how well you are doing compared to others,” then it matters a lot WHICH others you compare yourself to. And that can be very arbitrary.

On any given day, we can be amazed at the good fortune we have been showered with, compared to specific others who, perhaps, did not have our advantages. There will usually be solid reasons to celebrate our relative successes, triumphs, accomplishments, recognition.

On the other hand, for most people and most companies, there will ALWAYS be someone who, in some way, has done “better,” deservedly or undeservedly, and the focus can become a dispirited one of regret and disappointment , that we are not doing as well as THEM.

Sometimes, you don’t care what others have got. Or to be more precise, certain people just aren’t your reference group: you don’t compare yourself to them. Others you care about a lot.

The questions that all this raises in my mind are these:

(a) How are the reference groups you compare yourself with determined?

(b) As individuals (self-management) or as companies (managing others) can we learn to control or manage who we choose as our reference group?

(c) How do you keep comparisons to a reference group “healthy” and avoid obsessive, unproductive comparisons?


Judith Erickson said:

It would appear that happiness is, indeed, relative. Research has also demonstrated that intrinsic satisfaction – feelings of accomplishment, recognition, and the like – are more effective for achieving happiness and inner peace than those of an extrinsic nature, i.e., accumulating more “things,” be they money or the latest gadgets. Years ago I heard that the grass is greener in the other fellow’s yard because there’s more BS. That seems to have a ring of truth to it.

posted on May 9, 2007

Eugene Gascho said:

It’s hard to respond to David’s 3 questions about happiness without discussing religion. For example – sincere followers of the Christian faith find a profund influence on thier sense of intrinsic satisfaction, feelings of accomplishment, need for recognition, inner peace and happiness. Although there is still the same built-in (human nature yearning) for being as good or better than peers, there is a different response to that information because of their religious faith. I’d love to discuss the particulars of that because I experience that myself – but it may outside the scope of this discussion. Christianity and other religions may have completely different “refernce groups” than a person who thinks they live “religionless”. Needless to say all these elements of happiness are important to consider if we are to manage and lead others.

posted on May 9, 2007

Stuart Cross said:


A couple of points

  1. Last year I moved from a career in a large UK corporation to running my own consulting business. One of the consequences of this has been that I no longer compare myself to others, mainly as a result of my increased work satisfaction – doing interesting, worthwhile work and being fully responsible for my own destiny. I would be really interested to know whether others have had the same experience
  2. My wife and I were talking about this topic a couple of weeks ago. Her view is that if you are as happy smelling a rose in your garden as you are from owning a yacht in the harbour at Monte Carlo, then you don’t need a yacht in Monte Carlo. In other words wanting less “stuff” and finding happiness in the simple things helps avoid excessive comparison with others (and ultimate unhappiness).

All the best


posted on May 9, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Yes, but, but, but.

I think you are both right, Judith and Stuart (and Stuart’s wife) but I hope I’m not being too provocative by pointing out that you’re running the risk of “assuming the problem away.”

Yes, IF people could focus on inherent, intrinsic motivations and IF they didn’t compare themselves to others, then they’d be happier.

Granted. But both conditions, according to all available research, are rare, not common. People DO focus on extrinsic motivators and DO compare themselves to others.

So, what is to be done? For example, if I’m a manager, don’t I have to learn HOW to refocus people’s attention away from rewards and comparisons? How do I do that?

For that matter, how do people do it for themselves? For example, Stuart, I’d LOVE to learn more about the lessons from your transition, and how you came to not care so much about comparisons? What helped? What were the barriers?

posted on May 9, 2007

Carmine Coyote said:


If you consider what values might be behind this obsession with doing better financially then the other guys, you come up with status and recognition.

I suspect that cash, in itself, is nice to have, but what matters to many people still more is feeling that the world is recognizing them and treating them as the important people they’ve always believed that they are.

If this is true, money is vital, not in itself, but as an easily recognized and universally understood metric for importance. More money (than others) means more important (then others).

Maybe if organizations treated people better and praised them more often, employees wouldn’t feel quite such an overwhelming need to use cash to brag and bolster their self-esteem.

Intrimsic motivation is just fine, but if your neighbors treat you like shit, there’s nothing like being able to wave wads of cash around to make them change their minds.

posted on May 9, 2007

Karen Morath said:

I have two thoughts on this critical subject (after all there is health and then happiness on the what’s life all about list).

1. I have written and pondered before about how solo business people like me get their recognition, having eschewed company cars, titles and other corporate trappings. At least in part, I think the answer is simply to constantly be grateful for what you have and who you are.

2. Zig Ziglar says that the successes of others are irrelevant to us as we are all driven by different abilities and capacities for work. We only, therefore, need to be concerned about our own achievements compared to our own potential. In Australia, we would say ‘put your head down and your bum up and get on with it’.

posted on May 10, 2007

Charlie said:

“The research seems to show that, for most people, apparently, happiness lies not in the absolute amount of “rewards” you have, but in whether or not you have more or less than others”.

The idea seems to be reasonable and logical but I think it is based on a rich person’s perspective. If we take the poor’s perspective, happiness is to have enough of what is needed.

posted on May 10, 2007

Stuart Cross said:

David, thank you for the prompt and making me think a bit harder about the issue. The change for me over the past year is exclusively work related – my family and other aspects of my life have been great all along. The steps I took which helped me get to where I am to day are

  • Before making the career transition I spent time thinking about what I really wanted to achieve in life, and what my underlying values and beliefs really were. I think that this started the process of helping me move away from constant comparison.
  • As I made the transition I felt that at last I was doing something that I truly wanted to do. Based on Karen’s note that allowed me to “put my head down, my bum up, and get on with it”. Because I felt I was doing the work I was destined to do comparisons were, again, less important.
  • Since starting my consulting firm I have enjoyed my work far more than I have for several years. This has allowed me to focus on doing good work for my clients rather than thinking about how this will get me to a certain career position.
  • I have also been lucky enough to get some great feedback from my clients. Going back to Carmine’s post, positive feedback certainly puts a spring in my step.

I guess that everyone’s different, and that we’re all different at different stages in our life. For example, I’m aware that my move away from external comparisons may be a “honeymoon period” and once the new career becomes more normal then I may look around at the performance of other consultants. However, I’d be interested to hear if others have had similar experiences.

posted on May 10, 2007

Karen Morath said:


I write for a website http://www.flyingsolo.com.au that you might find interesting on topics in and around the ‘solo psyche’ and values and working for yourself and the like.


posted on May 10, 2007

Howie said:

I agree that it’s relative to the people we compare ourselves to. There are lots of things that are common to us and we know that it’s not something to be happy about.

posted on May 11, 2007

MG said:


These are good questions, and I recently discovered that I’m not the only one in the office enjoying the paradox of struggling to achieve a quiet heart.

In order:

(q) How are the reference groups you compare yourself with determined? (a) Naturally enough, I think, by the people I “started” with, give or take a year: my fellow undergraduates; fellow officers in my regiment; my post-grad peers; my public service intake. And I think this follows from the fact that we share roughly similar circumstances in terms of education, experience and opportunities at a given time, and reasonably similar goals and expectations. (q) As individuals (self-management) or as companies (managing others) can we learn to control or manage who we choose as our reference group?

(a) Surely yes, at least to an extent, but I don’t know how. I suspect that people are hardwired to make comparisons, as we see in aspects of behavioural finance . . . which leads us to your third question.

(q) How do you keep comparisons to a reference group “healthy” and avoid obsessive, unproductive comparisons?

(a) In my view, a good hard look in the mirror coupled with brutal honesty about what you see aren’t a bad start, trite though that may sound. Taking that as a point of departure, I think the trick is to make sure we make our comparisons on a common basis. For example, my temptation is to compare the outcomes of my choices (eg a refusal to play office politics) with the outcomes of my colleagues’ circumstances (eg access to financial support from family). On reflection, I find it more productive, and more honest, to compare choice with choice, and circumstance with circumstance. When I control for that, I think I get a pretty fair estimation of how I’m going compared to similar people.

Of course, that doesn’t even begin to answer whether I prefer a flower to a yacht, which is a different and worthwhile question.

Picking up your comment above (. . . don’t I have to learn HOW to refocus people’s attention away from rewards and comparisons . . . ?), I would answer “no”. I suspect you probably can’t and would spend an awful lot of fruitless time trying. Perhaps instead the trick would be to spend that time understanding their individual interests and then considering how given rewards and comparisons work as motivation? After all, from a practical perspective a fellow’s going to find it a lot easier to work with people as they are rather than trying to change them.

posted on May 12, 2007

will said:

The overall question of happiness and its connection to the wealthy western lifestyle is a very deep and moving question which is not so easily answered.

overall I would say that it’s connection with benchmarks from the world “out there” is tenuous, at best; desires change, so why wouldn’t one’s external benchmarks.

External benchmarks are alienating. And when we compare or are jealous of others, then we don’t connect with them.

If we are constantly comparing ourselves to others in the world, then we are completely on disconnect. we create a double of ourselves, one that stands apart from the self and can judge the self… such a double is a great navigational tool in this world, a great moral help, but can beome despotic. It is both jimminy cricket but it can also be a little Hitler.

My favorite self help book of all time, “Mille Plateau” says this about being happy in the world:

“Cease to make consicousness a double, and cease to make passion the double of one for an other. Make consicousness and experimentation, and passion a continuous field of intensities”

It’s like this: we *are* possibilities; some actualized, some not. Live a western life? what a gift ! richer than most of the world, so experiment, follow your dreams, but keep a little of jimminy cricket to help you do so responsibly?

Feeling stuck? feeling opressed? start by overthrowing your own inner dictator that binds you, like lobster’s pincers (the double bind) to judge others as they judge you. But don’t replace it with an inner puppet govenement. create a true inner democracy.

Instead. bind to the world, bind to others, open up, go someplace you’ve never been, feel compassion for people you never let yourself feel before. taste it all. Turn greed into something beneficial: Be greedy for the happiness of others.

Bored with your lover? Take a vacation with your lover and plot escape routes from boredom and redundency. sneak out of your hotel and have a tender kiss in the moonlight: constuct the moonlight-parkbench-kiss machine and turn it on.

posted on May 12, 2007

Wally Bock said:

As I’ve tracked this discussion, I’ve found myself more and more uncomfortable with the fact that we’re discussing happiness for a sub-set of the population (those for whom high status and income are important) and only two “causes,” relative and absolute income. It seems to me that other research shows that, on average, people with religious faith, close families and lots of friends are happier than people who don’t have those things. People who receive intrinsic rewards from their work have an advantage in the happiness derby. When it comes to money it seems like once you get beyond “enough” adding more money doesn’t make you happier.

It also seems to me that the people I think of as happy don’t seem to spend much time comparing themselves to others. Could it be that viewing your success primarily in relative terms is likely to leave you unhappy?

posted on May 15, 2007

peter vajda said:

True and real hapiness is a state of “be-ing”; one can have a felt-sense of (real and authentic) happiness even in the throes of conflict, pain, and challenge if one is experiencing happiness from the “inside.”

For many, however, so-called happiness is, rather, a state of “mind” in which case one’s “judgmental-comparative” mind is at play, driving the happiness activity-pursuit, and from this place, most happiness is “faux” happiness, short-lived and, truth be told, the “appearance” of happiness, not the real deal-which is why it’s so fleeting, ephemeral and more characteristics of a Sisyphean lifestyle-type-of-search for it.

posted on May 15, 2007

ctd said:

There is a survey floating around (that I can’t locate a link to) that asked people whether they would prefer:

1. to be paid $100,000 knowing that everyone else at their level/with their experience would be receiving $120,000; or

2. be paid $80,000 knowing their peers would be getting $70,000.

The majority of people – something like 70% – picked the 2nd option – that is, a lower absolute income but a higher comparitive income.

This focs on whether you are getting ‘your due’ (as it is seen) is very commonplace in professions (I am in law) – just witness the comments by associates surrounding the recent pay increases in the big law firms. Firms that arent matching the incredible first year salaries of $160,000 are being heavily criticized and people are upset. But these people are inexperienced young lawyers already on incredible salaries.

My personal experience is that comparisons like this are unavoidable until people achieve financial independence (pay off their mortgage, have their cars etc). Until then, people want to know they are being paid as much as or more than ‘the Jones’, so they dont fall behind or feel that their whole life is much harder than the neighbour. Once you achieve financial independence, this stress disappears and such comparisons are not as relevant (although, of course, there are always people who want the newest/biggest/latest etc).

So, while I dont disagree with peoples comments above, remember when you were struggling financially (or, at least, not independent) and remember what was important to you then. Financial factors (and status and so forth) were more important than children or free time or independence. What is important changes over time.

posted on May 16, 2007

Ashutosh Wakankar said:

Looking at David’s three questions, I have no theory of for the first one. However, as far as true happiness goes, one needs to only look back at life to notice that the only moments of true happiness are when we give the whole of ourselves to something without expecting anything in return. The connection between happiness and selfless dedication is inescapable. In the absence of this distinction all of us are chaing happiness by all other means only to realize that even this ‘new’ thing does not give happiness. Time and again it has been proven that there is no connection between the amount of money one has and happiness.

Once one gets in touch with this realization then it is absolutely possible to manage happiness and keep the atmosphere absolutely positive and productive by focusing on getting people to be at their best by putting them in touch with their passion and the contribution it makes to the world at large.

And for the cynics, it is not that utopian. Look back at your life and you would have worked for an organization like this without probably valuing what its real proposition was.

posted on May 20, 2007

Jerome Alexander said:

I wholeheartedly agree with ctd’s comments. This may sound ancient but remember Mazlow’s need’s heirarchy. That’s what’s relative here.

I am personally sick and tired of hearing and reading about the plight of the poor, downtrodden, and misunderstood CEO’s and other obscenely paid and pampered executives in their search for inner happiness. You would think that world revolved about this lot. Perhaps in the consulting world but not in the REAL world.

I recently read an article wriiten by an author nearly brought to tears by the story of a high powered executive who decided to “chuck it all” in favor of his wife and children and go live on an island or farm or something. Sure, WE can ALL fall back on our six or seven figure cash reserves. Perhaps sell ONE of our summer homes in order to survive. How insipring! Yes, we are all so independent.

Perhaps it would not seem so difficult for everyone to find inner happiness if one was not constantly barraged with the model being that of the wealthy and powerful.

posted on May 26, 2007

auto parts mom said:

A lot of people right now really looked on how much money they were getting and compairing it to others like friends or relatives. Its just shows that they can only be happy if they were earning higher than anyone they knew. Whereas the value of professionalism and the profession itself loses. Its so sad that these things are happening which its shouldn’t. I hope this kind of mentality be divert into the real concept of earning respect and dignity into ones work.

posted on January 23, 2008