(3 minute read)
When I started my practice in Hong Kong, I was told “Oh, you’ll have lots of clients because Hong Kong is such a stressful place.” There seems to be a belief that psychological problems are caused by the fast pace of modern life, the pressure to make money, the lack of time for oneself, and the competitive nature of the denizens of big cities. If this were true, people living an outdoor, natural life with lots of exercise and time to relax and think should be so much better off than us rat racers.
Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case. I’m reminded of a conversation I overheard between two guides who were taking a group of us whitewater rafting down the Grand Canyon. These were people who spent their life in the open, admiring — and battling with — the grandeur of nature. (Personally, having been tossed out of my raft in the middle of a major rapid, I could do with a little less grandeur of nature.) The guides were locked in verbal combat, comparing their rafting skills, denigrating the other’s experience, and feeling, I suspect, alternatively triumphant, defeated, angry and hurt. They had, in the midst of this pristine wilderness, created a rat race every bit as vicious and cut throat as Hong Kong’s.
So it’s not just Hong Kong, not just the modern world. We are social creatures, and as such we seem hard wired to compare ourselves to others. We pick our peer group, and our happiness quickly becomes linked to how we’re performing against them. Robert Kissel, the Hong Kong investment banker murdered by his wife was quoted as saying “What good is it if I make US$10 million if the guy down the hall is making US$20 million?” Investment bankers compare themselves to other investment bankers, trailing spouses to other trailing spouses, billionaires to billionaires, and the man on the Shaukiwan tram compares himself to his neighbour. There’s truth in the old definition of ‘rich’: Ten percent more than your brother-in-law makes.
And yet there are people who don’t seem to feel much need to keep up with the Joneses. The sense that they are living their lives mostly in accordance with their own values gives them some protection against the need to compare. Perhaps the fact that they know that they are a responsible, reliable and loving family member, a constant friend to others, a contributor to society and that they’re learning and growing enables them to care somewhat less about external yardsticks. The pull of money, achievement, educational status, fame and the like are not quite so strong when you’re living your life in the way that is right for you.
Some practical tips, then, for reducing the power of the rat race in your own life:
Become aware of your feelings. Mindfulness, although perhaps oversold these days, is a good way to help you observe yourself, to see your feelings rather than be sucked into them. It is when we are not fully conscious of our feelings that we are most at risk of being influenced by them. There are many recordings that can help you get started. UCLA is one organization that has a selection.
Review how well you’re living up to your values. This link to a free worksheet is a good place to start. From this you can see which of your values are most important to you, and in which areas you’re falling short. Focusing on the gaps, identifying what it is that’s stopping you from living up to your values and making changes in your life to eliminate those obstacles will give you some amount of freedom from external measures of worth.
Reduce opportunities for comparison. Social media is the villain here, a platform designed to enable others to put forth a curated self that will make us feel inadequate. Make a list of the “Friends” you really want to be close to and ensure you stay in touch with them in other ways: phone calls, lunches, emails, a movie on the weekend. Reduce, or even eliminate, the amount of time you spend on social media. You may end up with fewer, but far deeper relationships.
Ensure your social group contains people who don’t compare. If you’re associating with people who talk about their latest vacation, newest purchases, recent promotion, or their brilliant child’s latest achievement, perhaps you can invest less time in them and more in people who don’t make you feel competitive.
(If you liked this article, you might also enjoy Crying in a BMW: Money, Materialism and the Pursuit of Happiness and Social Climbing and the Meaning of Life: Insecurity, Anxiety and Self-Knowledge )