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Relative happiness


Explanations > Emotions > Happiness > Relative happiness

To others | To the past | To expectations| So what


Beyond momentary joy, we determine our happiness in the same way as we make many other decisions: in contrast to other things and people.

Relative to others

Would you rather have $100 when others around you have $1000, or would you rather have $10 when those around you have $1. In fact many people would prefer the latter. If your car is ten years old when your friends have new cars you might feel unhappy, but if none of your friends had cars you would more likely feel quite good about having an old, beat up vehicle.

We compare ourselves against others in many ways and judge many of the variables of happiness in comparison with other people. When we say 'rich' we really mean 'richer', and when we say 'happy' we often mean 'happier'.

Relative to the past

As well as comparing with others, we also compare with the happiness of our former self. considering how happy or not we have been in the past in contrast to how we are now. It might seem that if we were sad in the past then we might, in comparison, feel happier now. However, comparing with the past is not that simple.

If you think about happy events in your  recent past, you will feel generally happier now than if you think about negative recent events. However, if the events you think about are in the distant past, then thinking first about negative events will likely lead you to be happier than thinking first about distant positive events.

This odd reversal happens because you are 'infected' more by the re-experiencing of strong emotions in recent events and the negativity or positivity of these overwhelms the contrastive effect. The re-experienced emotion of most distant past events is sufficiently dulled that a more considered comparison is possible and you can realize that you are happier now than an unhappy period long ago.

Again, another counter-balancing effect can happen if you look at the past with rose-tinted spectacles, imagining a joyful childhood that was actually as hormonally anguished as most teenagers are today. With such a rosy perception of the past, the present might again seem less pleasant.

Relative to expectations

Happiness is also related to the expectations we have of the future. If you buy a cheap hi-fi system and expect it to have great sound quality, you might well be disappointed. But if you expect poor quality, then you might be pleasantly surprised.

A survey of Olympic medal winners showed that people who won bronze are happier than silver medal winners, who are more disappointed that they missed winning gold. whilst the bronze medallists are usually happy to have won any medal.

This is the argument that pessimists put forward -- that it is better to be happy with less than disappointed by not having more.

Thinking of the future also depends on your life expectancy and older people often prefer to look back on a long and generally fulfilling life rather than contemplate a few more years of aches and pains.

So what?

When working with happiness, watch for comparisons and how important these are, then use these to affect mood and happiness. Take into account whether the person is an optimist or pessimist (and to what degree), and also how they perceive time.  Beware of recent events overwhelming your efforts when comparing with the past.

See also

Contrast principle

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