Happiness by Comparison

A student who frequently writes to me about her efforts to overcome self-doubts and develop a more moderate, reasonable way of life, told me of an exchange she had recently with a friend who was trying to persuade her that she ought to be happier. The friend offered three specific arguments, which my student summarized as follows:

1. You have no disorder in your body. Compared to disabled people, you are a really happy person. They live diligently and with enthusiasm even if they have physical problems not caused by their own intention. When you feel depressed, think of these people. You can be grateful.

2. You were not born in Africa. You don’t have to starve and struggle with survival issues.

3. You have a good appearance. It might make you feel happy.

My student was skeptical of these reasons, wondering why such considerations should affect her own emotional state. In truth, what her friend had offered was a simple recitation of the typical “self-judgment through social comparison” arguments that have been a part of modern psychological theory from Thomas Hobbes to Robert Nozick, and right on down to the dregs of today’s self-esteem gurus. Leaving aside the nonsense issue of self-esteem, a modern fabrication of little philosophical importance, we may take very seriously the question of whether one ought to judge oneself happier on the basis of such comparisons, as my student was being urged to do.

Of course we may feel fortunate that we do not have specific problems which other people have. (“There but for the grace of God….”) But not having such problems does not, in itself, prevent us from having other (perhaps worse) problems. There is indeed an important lesson to be learned from comparing ourselves to people with more serious hardships than ours who learn to make the best of their lives in spite of those difficulties, and the lesson is definitely not, “I am so lucky.”

Suffering can bring spiritual strength, confidence in the face of adversity, and patience — virtues that greatly enhance one’s real hopes for a life worthy of being called “happy.” In short, having every kind of recognizable advantage does not guarantee you will have a better or happier life, unless we artificially restrict our vision to what is apparent only in the very short term. And no reasonable person would define happiness in a way that excluded long-term results. Let us put this more concretely, then, by considering some of the more obvious shortcomings of this comparative notion of happiness.

Having no physical defects or serious illnesses is healthier than the opposite condition, obviously. On the other hand, facing no pain or physical struggle in your younger years can make you mentally weak or “precious,” and unable to withstand illness or pain later in life (such things, again, being almost inevitable), whereas a person who grows up with many physical struggles may be able to manage his life more rationally through pain and illness later, because he will be “used to it,” never having expected life would be painless.

Likewise, having a lot of money all one’s life gives a person many practical opportunities that the poor do not have, and removes many stresses the poor do have. However, being born rich also often inclines people to be foolish or careless with money — and therefore, by psychological extension, with all resources — as well as to overvalue material things, in the sense that continuous physical comfort tends to make us soft and sensuous in our hopes and pleasures. Furthermore, one who rarely feels the pain of wanting that which seems unattainable will be unlikely to develop the willpower to handle the various hardships and crises that can befall anyone at any time of life, and that will befall everyone eventually.

Finally, having a good appearance certainly opens doors, and makes you far more likely to give a positive first impression. Most normal people want to be around those who are good-looking, they want to be seen with good-looking people, they want to give things to good-looking people, they want to hire or be liked by good-looking people. On the other hand, those inevitable social advantages, precisely by being inevitable, can make the attractive person egotistical, self-important, vain, presumptuous, or superficial. Being given things without a sense of having earned them, or being regularly preferred over others on the basis of external goods or innate fortune, teaches one that life’s successes and comforts come easily, rather than needing to be gained through much effort, and this invites terrible emotional hardships later in life, when the benefits of physical attractiveness naturally fade, and the person who was never prepared by experience for failure, rejection, or hard work is suddenly left to rely on his character to pull him through periods of isolation or disappointment.

Good fortune may well play a role in genuine happiness. No less wise a theorist on this subject than Aristotle himself believed accidents of birth could contribute to a life that might be judged “well-blessed” (i.e., possess eudaimonia) in the final analysis. But that final analysis is the key. For what one makes of one’s innate advantages is all the difference, which is to say that while those of good fortune in external or material goods may well have a more optimistic path to spiritual development, such goods in themselves provide no assurance of ultimate success in the happiness sweepstakes. 

Furthermore, as Aristotle himself implicitly acknowledges, there is the problem, which I have hinted at above, of determining which of the commonly perceived advantages are truly beneficial in the long run, and also which further conditions must be met in order for those apparent goods to be properly exploited as advantages. After all, Aristotle and his peripatetic school were very direct in proposing that melancholia — in the Greek medical sense that is the root of our modern psychological sense — is a condition shared among many, perhaps most, of the greats, from philosophy to art to statesmanship, and even among the gods and heroes of mythology. Yet melancholy is certainly not a physical or temperamental state men would normally regard as good fortune or any sort of advantage. On the contrary, it is precisely the condition of the soul that a friend might try (foolishly) to ameliorate by saying, “Think how lucky you are to be healthy, wealthy, and attractive.”

So what, in the end, should we make of the suggestion that happiness may be enhanced by comparing our life conditions favorably to the misfortunes of others?

First of all, it is clear that this sort of self-assessment by comparison is entirely different from the “healthy competitiveness” that many promote as a sign of psychological well-being. To win a race, for example, may well instill or enhance one’s pride, but this is because the race has a well-defined and unambiguous goal within itself. If I cross the finish line first, I know I am better off within the parameters of the race than anyone who finished behind me. As long as that context is carefully cordoned off from the rest of life — from, say, a consideration of all the books I did not read while training for the race — and furthermore, as long as I am comparing myself only to those who shared the same goal (the finish line) and competed against me, I may enjoy the legitimate and well-earned satisfaction of having achieved that which others in this chosen field did not achieve. It is also significant that in such cases, the competitive achievement is indeed an achievement — a direct result of my efforts to develop and perfect a skill — rather than merely a product of “good luck,” such as being born in comfortable circumstances, which may afford at best only a very tenuous sense of personal advantage, since it is largely unearned, and felt to be so.

Furthermore, even this competitive notion of comparison is limited in its primary value to the time of youth, when the innate lack of self-assurance and the immature need to test oneself against a standard make “winning,” within clearly defined boundaries, a source of growing pride and self-confidence. Eventually, this simplistic sense of advantage gives way, or should, as the increasingly independent and self-determining adult learns to judge himself against standards of truth, virtue, or the advance toward eternity, rather than by any sort of comparison with the measurable earthly accomplishments of other men, as such.

To return, then, to our main issue — whether one ought to feel happier when comparing one’s blessings of fortune to the earthly misfortunes of others — it seems that there is very little to recommend this idea. For one thing, to compare one’s unearned advantages to the equally undeserved disadvantages of others could only promote happiness if we defined happiness in terms of immediate comfort, or the lack of immediate difficulty. Show me a person who defines happiness as immediate comfort or the lack of immediate difficulty, and I will show you a body without a soul — the kind of person for whom the good life is a stable income, tasty food, and plenty of readily available and easily replaceable amusements to while away the evenings. A human life worth living will inevitably and necessarily involve much strain, disappointment, vain hopes, and even occasional doubts about the ultimate value of it all. To attempt to override those feelings with superficial reminders that “someone else has it worse” is little different from getting drunk every night to avoid facing oneself in eternity’s mirror.

Again, to conclude with what is probably the most important point on this issue in the long run, there is the problem of determining whether one’s innate advantages are really so advantageous at all, in the final analysis. Insofar as life entails struggle for spiritual survival, and repeated efforts to stretch the boundaries of self-definition, it is sometimes far from obvious where practical advantage lies. Does early ease and material success lead to greater development in the long run, or to a premature slackening of the tensions in the soul that are needed to propel a person to the highest kinds of achievement? Does perfect physical health in youth always foster health in the mind, or might it just as often promote a tenderness and satiety of character that prove fatally inadequate in the face of life’s most demanding challenges and pains? Do the boons of personal social advantage in youth tend to cause the hardiness of spiritual self-determination in maturity, or on the contrary might the benefits of being universally judged attractive lead to a false sense of one’s real worth and accomplishment that will leave one without internal resources, not to mention real friendship, in those circumstances when superficial popularity is of no benefit?

In all of these cases, everything will depend on other factors beyond the supposed advantages in question — on the positive influence of parents or teachers, for example — to guard the young soul against the pernicious long-term effects of unearned early advantages. Human history, known and unknown, provides endless examples of people blessed with so many “happy accidents” of birth who were spoiled by those blessings, or simply dissipated into the emptiness of normalcy and so-called stability, due to having failed to develop the strength of character and hunger of soul needed to propel a life beyond its initial platform, and toward the fulfillment of its widest potential.

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