Happiness is Relative

A massive study on happiness was conducted a few years ago with thousands of people from more than 100 countries. Ed Diener, PhD, a researcher known as The Happiness Doctor from the University of Illinois wanted to understand how much of happiness was cultural and how much was economic. What he discovered, in part, was human happiness is impacted by several universal themes.

As you may imagine, people in wealthier countries were, in general, happier than those in developing nations. And people who identified as very religious tended to be happier, when they lived in highly religious countries.

One of the universal truths Diener uncovered was a bit of a surprise: in every culture, your happiness is influenced by how you perceive how you’re doing in relationship to your peers. In other words, every context – cultural, corporate or personal – has its own version of Keeping Up with the Joneses.

It thrives in New York, London and Singapore. It’s alive and well in your work environment, too.

It’s even conspicuous in remote places such as Bora Bora. In the tranquil island nation, families identify wealth with large stones outside their homes and the larger the stone, the larger the wealth. Many of the good people of Bora Bora have stone envy.

Danger Will Robinson…

At the heart of Keeping up with the Joneses is asymmetric information. The knowledge we have of ourselves is significantly better than the information we have of others. We have a very discreet, detailed and complete understanding of our own lives. However, for others, we have only vague perceptions. This can come in handy when we’re playing poker and want to bluff, but it can get in our way when it comes to social comparisons. Our brains actually believe that our perception of someone else’s situation is accurate. 

…happiness is influenced by your perception of how you’re doing in relationship to your peers

When we compare ourselves to someone else, we don’t know how he or she is really doing – all we have is a perceptionof how they’re doing. Yet we’re comparing that vague perception to a very specific and detailed view of our own life. That asymmetry is trouble because we tend to believe that our perception of someone else’s life is accurate, very much like the view we have of our own life.  

Regrettably, our own happiness is often influenced by that flawed comparison.

At Home

For my 10th birthday, I wanted a GI Joe with the Kung Fu grip, in part because “all my friends” had one. I thought I’d be happier if I could have the same toy that my best buddies had. My keeping up with the Joneses experience was the difference between what I could perceive and what I didn’t have.

Today, when I see a neighbor in a flashy new car or installing a new barbeque grill, my first reaction is to think, “Ah, she’s doing well!” In reality, I don’t know. She may be overspending her budget, she may have inherited money, or it might have been an award from her company. But her new car or her new grill are just data points that exist without fully understanding what’s going on. My happiness quotient will remain buoyant if I exclude my neighbor from my comparative group.

I’m better off leaving my first instinct behind – to compare myself to her – and use the greatest Jedi mind trick of all – rationalization – to remove my neighbor from the mental group that I compare myself with. “She’s probably just racked up a ton of debt,” I might say to myself. “I’m glad I’m not doing the same.”

At Work

The same is true in the office. We want to believe that the easiest comparative measure of success at the office is salary; however, most of us don’t actually know what our coworkers are earning. In fact, money really isn’t a good measure since we can’t see it. Without a clear indication of what someone else’s salary really is, we rely on – you guessed it – what we can see. We rely on the things we perceive they have in their lives. 

Our guesses of other’s success are based on the same visual cues as my experience with my friends’ GI Joes. We see our peers moving into a nicer cube, or working on prestigious assignments, or taking a trip paid for by the company, but we don’t really know how they’re doing financially. (That renders salaries ineffective as a reward or recognition – they’re not visible measures.) Our keeping-up-with-the-Joneses meter is informed by what we can see. And again: specific details on my situation, vague estimations on your situation. Asymmetry is alive and well in the office.

It is fallacious to think that moving from Sam’s Club to Country Club with our salary adjustment or bonus will make us happier. In fact, we simply traded clubs. With the new club comes new comparisons and a whole new level of competition. Our Joneses got notched up and we will soon find ourselves working hard to keep up with them.

Money, per se, will never buy us happiness.

How does my life compare to the people around me?

How To Deal with It

There are two ways to achieve more happiness in the workplace. The first is to lower your expectations and desires. In this imaginary world, you would compare your current status and salary with people whose salary and status is below yours. It would be like sitting with the Country Club Joneses looking downward on a group of Sam’s Club Joneses. But that won’t happen. Our brains are always using life’s current situation as our reference point, not the point of where we were a year ago.

The second way is the realistic path. In the real world, we feel happier when we perceive we’re doing slightly better than our peer group. This is where meaningful assignments, a new title, a cube with a better view, and gifts or rewards that are non-financial in nature come into play.

Employees that are recognized for their effort with, say, a dinner for two on the company’s dime or a high-tech grill for the backyard, are happier at work than those who only get rewarded with money. In other words, we can be happier, in part, by the way we get recognized at work.  

Behavioral sciences help illuminate ways to engage people and to leverage our universal desire to keep up with the Jones. Applying behavioral sciences to your situation can provide tremendously positive results and a strong ROI.

Do you find yourself trying to Keep up with the Joneses? What about your employees? How does this concept impact you and your origination?

About The Author

Tim Houlihan is the founder and chief behavioral strategist of BehaviorAlchemy, LLC, a consultancy using a behavioral lens for improving the actions of workers, customers and policy makers. He co-founded Behavioral Grooves, a meetup and podcast with listeners in more than 80 countries. Previously, Tim was Vice President of Reward Systems at BI WORLDWIDE where he was responsible for a $300 million global portfolio of reward systems, acted as the firm’s thought leader in behavioral sciences and was the chief liaison to research partners around the world. Tim believes people underestimate the role of the unconscious in our behaviors. The application of good behavioral science can remedy that.