Happiness is Relative

by | Dec 11, 2018 | Emotions, Positive psychology, Well-Being | 0 comments

 If you have a full-time job working for an organization, you are probably reasonably satisfied with your pay. I am satisfied with my salary as an associate professor of psychology. But if you found out that other employees doing the same work were getting paid more, your satisfaction would plummet.  

Studies have found that we judge how well we are doing by comparing our situation to that of others.

You might say that we are talking about human nature, and you would be right. But we are also talking about monkey nature.

In a famous study, researchers gave pairs of capuchin monkeys a cucumber slice for showing a certain behavior. The monkeys showed the behavior and seemed satisfied with their reward. But when one monkey observed another monkey getting a much desired grape as a reward for the same behavior while it continued to receive a cucumber slice, the first monkey threw the cucumber at the trainer and pounded a bench in a rage. You could read the monkey’s mind: That’s not fair!

The Bible has a parable that deals with the cucumber-grape situation: The Parable of the Gold Coins. A farmer offers workers a gold coin to work until dark harvesting his crop. He hires workers throughout the day, including an hour before dark, paying everyone the same gold coin no matter how long they worked. When an early starter complains, the farmers says in essence: You are getting what you were promised, so pipe down.

Whenever I tell that parable to someone, I get the same response: “But that is so unfair!”

You have heard the saying that misery loves company. I would add to the saying “especially if the company is in an even worse situation.”

If our situation is poor, we can find comfort in comparing ourselves to others who are even less fortunate: People living in a war zone, someone on the run from police. 

I sometimes think how lucky I am not working as an administrator anymore.

Happiness is relative. We like to compare how we are doing with how others are doing and how we did in the past. If we look for and find favorable comparisons, we feel happy. So look for those.


 [Photo from rainforest-alliance.org]


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