Why do we sometimes feel bad when our friends do well? Natural selection. Evolution. Feeling inadequate when one of our friends upgrades to a bigger house is just the start of our envy. In doing so, we’re participating in ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. Keeping up with the Joneses was first referred to in a comic in 1913 which depicts the social climbing McGinis family, who struggle to ‘keep up’ with their neighbours, the Joneses.
Competition can be healthy
I’ve always been competitive. I used to play tennis competitively, so it’s no surprise that this transferred to my adult life when I left home. I looked at things from a win or lose perspective. What I didn’t realize is that winning didn’t have to mean doing better than my friends. I realized that winning could mean improving myself year on year. I realized that I could use my own experience as a benchmark instead of comparing myself to others.
Looks can be deceiving
The main problem lies in our perception of the lives of others. They may seem to have everything. Big house, great job and nice car. But how do individuals with seemingly perfect lives finance their lifestyle? We assume they have the income to cover it, but quite often, these extravagant lifestyles are being funded by credit. If they are using their income to cover it, they’ve made a choice to work more (exchange their time) to help them upgrade their lifestyles. Either way, they make a sacrifice of time and money. In order to keep up with them, you’d have to do the same.
In attempting to keep up, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment and anxiety.
On a separate note, consider how similiar your situations really are. Forgetting about whether a like-for-like comparison is helpful, is it truly accurate? I live in London where house prices are out of control but my friends, who have settled in the town where I grew up, are buying bigger houses. There are big differences in our lifestyles: I am in a serious relationship but unmarried and have no kids. I prioritise travel and a flexible work schedule. My friends are married or living with their partners and have children, so they prioritise their families. To address our priorities, our actions are going to differ. It’s impractical for my friends to rent when houses are affordable in the area that they currently live and it’s impractical for me to take a well-paid job I hate just to pay off a mortgage I can’t afford.
Where does it end?
The problem with trying to keep up is that the moment you upgrade you lifestyle, your friends do the same. Since they’ve upgraded, you feel the need to upgrade and vice versa. We’re all part of the same consumption treadmill with no foreseeable end. We can either stay on this treadmill, or we can make the deliberate decision to get off.
How to stop keeping up
Notice your emotions. Do you get jealous or depressed or angry? How many negative emotions wash over you as you hear good news from your friends about their new house?
Celebrate success. Colin Wright, author and full-time traveller, once described jealousy as, “...our self-consciousness being projected onto other people.” Instead, you can focus on celebrating the success of your friends. Remind yourself that what they’re doing is great for them, but won’t necessarily suit your lifestyle.
Be less materialistic. Would you still be friends with your friends even if they lost all of their wealth? That’s because we should be focusing on who our friends are instead of what they own.
Question entitlement. Have you ever caught yourself saying, “but I work really hard, so I deserve xyz.” Growing up in the first world makes many of us have a sense of entitlement.
Practice gratitude. Instead of focussing on what you don’t have, be grateful for everything you do have.
Create your own benchmark. Reflect on what’s important to you. When you next purchase something, consider whether you would still purchase it if you couldn’t tell anyone about it.
If we’re all concerned with impressing our neighbours, we’re all caught in the same trap. If your neighbour is concerned with your new car whilst you’re concerned with their new extension, then neither of you really cares about what the other has. Trying to impress others is a guaranteed route to dissatisfaction. Trying to improve yourself mentally and physically so that you can be the best version of yourself is a much worthier cause.
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