Making Plans and Achieving Goals

Happiness Comes From Progress. So Stop Comparing!

Happiness Comes From Progress.  So Stop Comparing!

One of the main keys to happiness is making progress in the most important areas of your life.  There is no end point that will make you permanently happy.  In order to stay happy we have to keep climbing the staircase and never go stagnant.  This means we need to spend a lot less time comparing ourselves to those with “perfect” lives and instead start focusing on improving ours.

The Illusion

The problem with comparing yourself to other people is that you don’t even know what you are comparing to.  People will only show you what they want you to see.  You might as well compare yourself to James Bond instead of someone you “know” from social media or a neighbor or that perfect family at daycare.  There are plenty of fit people out there with some of the most messed up body image and food issues that you could ever imagine.  People in big houses with luxury cars that are covered in debt and stressed around the clock.  There are couples on facebook that look like the picture of happiness until they get a divorce.

I have even seen some of the popular folks on social media (usually the ones trying to sell you something)  getting exposed for renting high-end luxury cars and mansions for these one-day photo shoots to make themselves look mega wealthy.  They will then take literally thousands of professional photos, pick the few best shots, photoshop them to make them look even better and then post them so you can get a look into their “life”.  But, the crazy thing is even if these people did have a “perfect” life and you were instantly put in their shoes it still would not make you happy for the long term.

There Is No End Point

It is very easy to look at what someone else has and to think, “man if only I had XYZ then I would be happy”.  However, the truth is that it wouldn’t make a difference for any meaningful amount of time.  In fact, the attitude of “I need this before I can be happy” you are programming your brain to not be happy.   There is actually a very popular study that is often cited when talking about this topic which examined the happiness of lottery winners and recent paraplegic accident victims.

The study found that the lottery winners were no happier than the paralyzed victims after about 6 to 9 months.  Of course, right after the big win, there was a massive change in happiness.  But, the new wealth soon became normal to them and ceased to bring happiness.  The lottery winners also got less joy from small daily events compared to the paralyzed victims.  They were looking for the next lottery-like win to make them happy.  A sunrise can seem pretty lame compared to winning 10 million dollars.

I’m sure most people can relate to this.  I know that I was so happy when I received notice that I had passed my professional engineering exam as I knew how much time and effort went into it.  I was on cloud 9 for about a month and couldn’t stop thinking about it.  However, the joy and pride I felt from the accomplishment slowly faded and my brain went to “okay now what?”  This returning-to-neutral is referred to as the hedonic treadmill in psychology.

Just Keep Climbing

So what are we supposed to do if everything positive that happens to us will only result in short-term happiness?  We must simply start making some real measurable progress in our own lives.  No matter where you are currently, you need to start taking steps towards improvement.  That might mean building up your endurance so you can walk a mile.  Or it might mean running a marathon in under 3 hours.  Progress for you might mean getting out of debt or it might mean giving away a million dollars to charity.

Just keep taking small steps towards your goals and you will be able to keep your overall happiness high.  When you are making progress, it feels like you are winning, regardless of where you are compared to others.



What do you think?  Is there an end point to anything where maximum happiness could be sustained without progress?  Have you ever noticed this return to baseline happiness in your life?

16 thoughts on “Happiness Comes From Progress. So Stop Comparing!”

  • The baseline is definitely real. I don’t have a very high baseline. My family’s part of the working poor class and I always thought I would be happier if I had lots of money so I can buy the things I want.

    When I married higher up I thought woo, I’m set for life! I was happy about that for maybe about 3 hours and then I felt empty again. Damn… totally was hoping money and security would be a more effective fix. I’m still working on myself and the progress (any at all blog wise) makes me happy and less empty. There’s definitely no quick fixes, everything that is worthy is a work in progress.
    Lily @ The Frugal Gene recently posted…Can Facebook Bragging Ruin Our Finances?My Profile

  • I’ve always been a very goal-oriented person. It’s hard to FIRE without being goal-oriented.

    Now that I’m FIREd, I still create goals or challenges, but I stay away, push away, or whatever any idea that I’ll be happier once I achieve the goal. Or worse, I won’t be happy until I achieve the goal.

    Instead, I think about all the things that I’m grateful for – great wife, being FIREd, living in a city I like, etc. I try to use gratitude to escape the inevitable Hedonic Adaption that comes after you complete some goal. It doesn’t always work, but I don’t want to create another goal of always being grateful. 🙂
    Mr. Freaky Frugal recently posted…Bank bonus bonanza!My Profile

    • Being grateful is huge for happiness. It is very easy for us to get complacent about what we have. I use to spend a little time every morning jotting down something I was grateful for to kind of prime my mind for the day. Now I write blog posts 🙂

      Thanks for sharing! And again big congrats on FIRE.

  • Great post, Grant. The other problem with comparing yourself with others is that the obstacles you needed to overcome to get where you are are likely different than what other seemingly more successful people have experienced. You have to take that into account. For example, a person who grew up with a number of life obstacles might take longer to reach financial success than one who grew up in a healthy environment where they were taught the principles of good money management, and that makes a difference. The emotional obstacles are just as important to overcome as the educational obstacles.
    Laurie @thefrugalfarmer recently posted…Ways to Save Money By Managing Expenses Proactively Instead of ReactivelyMy Profile

    • Very true Laurie. We don’t all start at the exact same point and we don’t have the exact same talents.

      We have no control of where we start in life but we can make changes that will affect where we end. Use other people as motivation not as measuring sticks.

  • This is a great reminder. It is definitely true that there is no end point at which we will reach a finish line and be permanently happy. I think one part of the solution is to just keep climbing, as you noted. The other, I would argue anyway, is taking time to be consciously grateful of what you have and what you have achieved. Set a new goal to look forward to, but also make sure to look back and smile from time to time.
    Matt @ Optimize Your Life recently posted…Does the Meaning of Life Matter?My Profile

    • Hey Matt, that is definitely true. Happiness doesn’t come from any one thing but a variety of things. Being grateful may actually have more of an impact on happiness. Making progress, being grateful, constanly experiencing new things and have a strong friend group would be the top of my list.

      Being able to enjoy the process on the way to your goals is critical. People always get stuck in this once I get a raise, once the kids are out of daycare, once I lose this weight, once I quit smoking. Start being happy now and enjoy the process of achieveing those goals.

  • Nice post, Grant! There’s a saying that the only person you should compare yourself to is yourself…or something like that. I wasn’t always good at that, but I’ve gotten much better. Now I strive to be a better version of myself every day – learning something new, accomplishing something, helping someone else, etc. There are days I probably take a step back or two, but then that always provides me the rest or reset I need to move further along in the coming days. Thanks for sharing!

    • Hey Amy, Thanks for commenting. I like to look to other people for motivation but not to compare myself too. I like to watch videos of people lifting crazy amounts of weight before my workouts to motivate me. I don’t think “man why can’t I lift like that” or “what is wrong with me”.

    • Yeah that is a very good point. It is so easy to look at people from the outside and think they have it all but you just never know. It has been sad seeing some of these guys from some of my favorite bands ending their lives.

  • Comparing your lot with that of others is one of the most detrimental things one can do. It’s not a joke. It’s the most sure-fire way to be unhappy. No one’s perfect. Like you said, on social media and frankly all around us, people want to show off a certain image. And a lot of it is only a slice of what their lives are really like. And we never see the skeletons in their closet. For example, me. I like to think that I know what I’m doing. And I try to portray an image of competence. But half the time I have no idea. I’m just winging it. Lol. I’ve found the best thing to do is to compare with where you were yesterday. Competition with yourself, to be the best that you can be.

    • What amazes me is that people just can’t help themselves and they must constantly keep comparing. People are obsessed with celebrities but they are some of the most messed up people around.

      I agree that you need to use yourself as the benchmark for competition. Others can be used as motivation but not for comparing.

      Thanks for sharing.

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