“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor. What does it matter how much a man has laid up in his safe, or in his warehouse, how large are his flocks and how fat his dividends, if he covets his neighbor's property, and reckons, not his past gains, but his hopes of gains to come? Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough.”
-Seneca, Letters to a Stoic
You may not realize it, but you’ve been comparing yourself to others your entire life.
We all do it and there’s no shame in it, but it’s not particularly useful for happiness.
Our tendency to compare is an expression of our genetic makeup: We have always competed against other human beings for scarce resources, hierarchy in the tribe, and in competition to attract a mate. The more we get in life, whether that is status or resources or both, the better chance we have at passing along our genes to a suitable mate—which is the fundamental drive of the human species.
This is human biology 101 and it’s why we compare and yearn and desire so much.
The thing is, nowadays, in a world where we live in stark contrast to the way our ancestors used to live—in small nomadic tribes that stayed together for life—we find ourselves pursuing more than our peers in a way that is poisonous and leads to discontent and compulsion.
To put it simply: People want more and they don’t know why. So they just keep chasing.
They perpetually go after more and “next. “
They become jealous of what others have instead of being grateful for what they do have. They perpetually want better and greener grass, and their life becomes an insatiable pattern of “leveling up” to the next thing, for which there is no ceiling.
And this breeds insecurity, discontent and unhappiness.
I have no problem with ambition and competition. In fact, I’m extremely ambitious and competitive myself. But now, as I am a bit older, and hopefully a bit wiser, I always seek to be in tune with the “why” of my life.
For example, I long ago made the decision to make sleep and health the number one priority in my life. No matter what promise of success I may have, I will not sacrifice either of these to get there. (And I’ve learned that I’m more successful when I take this route anyways.)
I’ve also since adjusted what I consider “successful” to be. When I was younger, I ignorantly believed that I would have to become a “millionaire” to be happy. Now, I know that’s not even remotely true.
Of course, this realization does not mean I am not aiming high. It means as I climb the ladder of success, I will be remind myself of where I was and am instead of obsessively focusing on where I want to be.
I’m making a point to enjoy the journey.
It’s a tricky thing.
As one attains success, your time is more monopolized. It becomes harder to do things that don’t generate income because you always know you could be generating income. So you start finding that you are spending less and less time with friends and family or watching Netflix or doing your favorite hobby.
After a while, you struggle with happiness.
At this point, if you are wise enough to realize it, you see that the reasons you wanted to be successful in the first place were so you could spend more time with those you love, more time with your hobbies, and more time watching Netflix (or whatever else makes you happy).
Then, you either start making changes to bring you more happiness or you will dive right back in under the idea that “just a little bit more” will do the trick and solve your happiness problem (which it never does).
There are plenty of successful people that never come to this realization. They end up the richest people in the graveyard.
Some realize it, quit everything, and move to a beach somewhere so they can spend their time how they want.
Some are so stuck in the rat race that they don’t have the time to consider any of this. They convince themselves that if they can just get ahead they will be happy. The problem is, this never works. They just replace what they have now for something else in the future and the cycle repeats itself over and over until they die.
There’s gotta be a better way. A happier way.
This is what it is: Find a way to be happy with what you have now and everything else you get is gravy. It’s as Epictetus said, “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”
Start by appreciating the journey, expressing gratitude for what you have and what you’ve accomplished, and balancing time with your health, hobbies and loved ones. And most of all, express gratitude. Being grateful fixes everything.
Does this all sound like a tall order?
I hope it does. It should… this is your freaking life we are talking about. But it should also motivate you, not deter you.
What’s better than chasing happiness? That’s usually what we are all after anyways. We just need to get better at recognizing what will actually bring us happiness so we can do more of those things and less of the things that we think will bring us happiness that actually don't.
If you think this is all “too much work,” and you can’t bear the thought to slow down or take some time to work on these areas, then I have some sad news for you: you are going to end up regretful and miserable.
You don't want to end up old and full of regret. Instead, be young, middle-aged, and old and full of gratitude and happiness the entire time.