Relative Happiness: Stop Comparing Yourself

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Predictably Irrational" by Dan Ariely. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is relative happiness? Why can comparing yourself to others be so detrimental? How can you improve your happiness levels?

Relative happiness is when you ceaselessly compare your life to the lives of others. This kind of thinking will almost always result in dissatisfaction and envy. But you can learn to control your comparison compulsions.

Keep reading to learn how to overcome relative happiness.

How Relative Happiness Makes You Miserable

One important point to understand about relativity is how powerful it can be in making you miserable, even if what you have is objectively good. Your comparative nature reaches far beyond making purchases or choosing who to date—it can cause you to ceaselessly compare your life to the lives of others, creating relative happiness. People often don’t know exactly what they want, until they see someone else with it. This is why you were happy with your reliable Honda until you saw your neighbor’s new Tesla. Or, why your brother-in-law’s recent jet ski purchase made you suddenly want to get into boating. 

Of course, this tendency toward comparison and subsequent envy comes with myriad problems. These problems can be smaller, such as the trap of comparative consumption you fall into when you need to have the same products as those around you. Other times, comparison and envy can translate into larger problems. 

  • For example, information about CEO salaries is often leaked as a way to create outrage toward the CEO and corporation in question and to push for fair wages for those at the bottom of the ladder. Instead, this often has the unintended effect of CEOs across the country realizing that their salaries could be even higher, and pushing for a salary equal to or better than the one leaked. 

Finding Happiness Despite Your Comparative Nature

Relativity is all around you, and your perception is inherently colored by it. However, there are several ways you can control your comparison compulsion and increase your happiness.

1) Diminish comparison opportunities. By controlling what products you see, you can exercise control over how tempted you are to make comparisons. For example, if you’re shopping for cars, be sure to only look at cars that are well within your means instead of casually browsing expensive, unwise choices. Looking at expensive cars will inevitably prompt you to compare them against your current car—which of course, makes the expensive car look like a good choice. 

2) Change your focus. It’s helpful to think about your choices in a larger context—you may realize that you are making a decision that isn’t for the best, in the long term. Take the example of shopping for cars. In a moment of narrow focus, giving up your reliable Honda for a new Tesla might seem like a good choice. The Tesla has more features, self-parks, and doesn’t require gas, and your Honda is a little on the older side anyway. However, reconsider this choice within a larger context. If you don’t buy the Tesla, you’ll save yourself a great deal of money, which could probably be better spent. You could eventually buy a new reliable Honda and have money left over to take your family on a vacation. 

In the end, it’s important to understand how strong the influence of relativity can be on your decisions and your happiness. With the awareness that your choices might not be sound, you can consciously work against your natural tendency to make comparisons. Instead, focus on doing thorough research before making purchases, putting extra mental effort into making comparisons between dissimilar items, and focusing on what you do have instead of what you could have. 

Relative Happiness: Stop Comparing Yourself

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Dan Ariely's "Predictably Irrational" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Predictably Irrational summary:

  • How logic is failing you on a daily basis
  • How to identify your irrational behaviors
  • Why getting something for free can cause you to make bad decisions

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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