Why Happiness Is Often Relative

Why Happiness Is Often Relative 1

Everyone yearns for happiness, and many put forth the effort to attain it. The problem is that happiness is fleeting; it’s a state of mind influenced by numerous factors. One of these factors relates to the expectations we have for ourselves, and the comparisons that we make, consciously or unconsciously, to our peers.

It’s called relative deprivation.

Think of it as happiness relative to the (perceived) happiness that you think others are experiencing. Whatever level  of happiness you believe they have attained, will impact the satisfaction you have for your own happiness level. Examples of this abound in the workplace with regard to promotions and salaries that are made public, and social media, where events, business activities, and personal and professional accomplishments are constantly exhibited.

This social psychology phenomenon is not to be confused with social comparisons, in which  people evaluate themselves (appearance, abilities, talents, lifestyles, popularity, possessions, etc.) in relation to others. Social comparison theory plays a role in self-image and self-esteem, impacts subjective well-being, and is largely predicted on upward and downward comparisons.

Relative deprivation centers on (subjective) entitlement.

The premise is simple: I don’t have what you have, and I’m just as deserving; therefore I feel deprived. We can take it even further (actually lower) with – I feel deprived AND I don’t like it, or I don’t like you (the person who has that which I feel entitled to) as a result.

Happiness, like success, is subjective. Some scientist say it’s just a fabricated illusion, and the basis for any happiness is genetics, life circumstances, and one’s internal state of mind. They refer to this as baseline happiness levels which according to them, we all have, and can do very little to change.

Comparing one’s happiness to another’s happiness is like comparing apples to oranges…especially if you never cared for oranges to begin with, but believe that your life is incomplete without them.

Perhaps it’s natural to compare ourselves and happiness to others. Social media certainly makes it easier to do, but a cognitive component that’s consistently overlooked puts too many in peril: no one, and no one’s life, is perfect – even in comparison to our own.

Many friendships and family members grow estranged simply because someone’s success or accomplishments make them feel deprived. The reality is that it’s not the success or accomplishments that cause the estrangement, it’s the strange way they feel as a byproduct of they feel about their own success or accomplishments relative to the person they are drawing comparisons to.

It’s completely self-induced.

We know, through science, that true happiness is both elusive, and not sustainable for many, but like love, we chase it anyway in hope of catching it. In that regard, and in that pursuit, we don’t seek relative happiness, because who we love, and why we love, is a unique experience. Happiness is no different, and shouldn’t be relative.

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