Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Posts tagged ‘Annie Leonard’

Social Comparison: The Cause of So Much Unhappiness

(Warning: the post below does not necessarily show off the author’s finest qualities.  Even worse, I’m hoping you’ll see yourself in these behaviors, because awareness of the unhappiness caused by constantly comparing ourselves with others is the first step toward freeing ourselves from social comparison’s grip on our psyches [and wallets].  Furthermore, since social comparison is a root cause of much environmental devastation, loosening its grip is good medicine individually AND collectively.  But never fear.  If you make it to the close of this little essay, you’ll find some ideas for breaking free or at least harnessing social comparison for the better. )

Mary Jane's extra beans.

Mary Jane’s extra beans.

Last Sunday evening, my friend Mary Jane brought a bag of extra green beans from her garden to share with other attendees at our weekly meditation gathering.  I gratefully accepted half the bag (there was one other taker) as Mary Jane enthused about how well her vegetables are growing this summer.

My garden is NOT doing well.  We’ve never bothered with a fence, but after this year — as all the peas and various other vegetables get eaten by unknown wild animals — we’re starting to think that might be a good investment.  Even my blueberries, which thrived last year, had a lackluster summer.  Could it be because I was a lackluster weeder?

In fact, the blueberries are my only crop.  Unlike almost all my women friends here in Vermont, I am a sorry excuse for a gardener.  Comparing myself to them … I just have to keep my mouth shut and not let anyone know I’m really not in their league.   I hardly ever even come to the ballpark.  It’s embarrassing.

My husband Bob is the real gardener of the family.  Speaking of my husband, he and I have both been trying to lose weight.  It’s discouraging to compare my progress with his, as he is doing significantly better than I am.  I am losing weight, but at our weekly check-ins, I am only down a few ounces,  while he can gleefully exclaim that he’s at a record low for the past five years.

Of course, I can take comfort in knowing I’m still doing better than our friends, another couple, who are part of this challenge with us.

Ugh.  What am I doing with all this social comparison?  Making myself unhappy, of course.  Why can’t I enjoy my husband’s success without also berating myself for my less diligent path?  And why can’t I just admire Mary Jane’s gardening bounty, accept her offer graciously, and not feel “less than” because I’m not a good gardener? And how pitiful to try and elevate my own self-esteem by noting that I am doing better than my friends — they’re my friends, for heaven’s sake.

Garlic social comparison

Not only that, but some of Bob’s gardening is yielding wonderful results.  He is harvesting another year’s worth of garlic, and the potatoes are doing better than ever.  His garlic bulbs are so big and succulent … I found myself looking at yet another friend’s just-harvested garlic and thinking, “your bulbs aren’t as big as Bob’s!”

What???  Petty, ridiculous, mean-spirited.  Okay, I’m not perfect — or as my friend Diana used to put it, “your halo’s slipping a bit” — but I don’t like this in me.  It is downright unpleasant.

Sadly, I could trot out an endless array of this kind of whiny, self-centered comparison — especially after I’ve left the comfort zone of central Vermont and spent time in an urban environment.  Then the flood gates of social comparison burst open, up and down, left and right.  I’m worse than because I’m wearing my sloppy Vermont clothes with my unkempt, non-trendy hair.  No, wait — I’m better than because I’m wearing my sloppy Vermont clothes with my unkempt, non-trendy hair.  It’s a lose-lose mindset.

As Sonja Lyubomirsky notes in The How of Happiness,” social comparison can be a pernicious destroyer of our happiness.  “You can’t be envious and happy at the same time,” she observes.  Nor can one be happy while disrespecting others.  While social comparison is inevitable and can serve a positive purpose — we can be inspired by others to do better ourselves — it is definitely a big problem for me.  I see it as the weakest link in my personal happiness chain.

Not only that, I believe social comparison is also at the core of many problems facing the planet as a whole.  Lord knows, advertisers play up social comparison to the hilt to get us to buy more stuff, which can have devastating impacts on our lives, the quality of lives of workers in far off countries, and the environment. I’ve shared this link before, and I’m sure I’ll share it again, but if you want a quick primer on how our hunger to “keep up with the Jones'” affects the world around us, check out Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff.”

Even without looking at the bigger picture, social comparison can fuel endless wanting.  From the Buddhist perspective, that’s synonymous with endless suffering.

Naturally, Bruce Springsteen captured the tug of social comparison in one of his songs.  In “Badlands,” he sings, “Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything.”  There you go — social comparison all the way around.   I used to compare my poor husband’s arms with the super-buff Bruce, but even while doing so, I knew it was totally unfair to compare my real life regular guy with a mega-celebrity.  Yet, how many people get caught in the trap of comparing ourselves with celebrities — favorably or unfavorably?  I suspect it’s a major cause of unhappiness.

Even in the virtual world, social comparison can be a real downer: last year, a University of Michigan study found that Facebook makes users sadder.  According to an NPR report, research co-author John Jonides, a cognitive neuroscientist, noted:  “When you’re on a site like Facebook, you get lots of posts about what people are doing. That sets up social comparison — you maybe feel your life is not as full and rich as those people you see on Facebook.”

Happily — really, literally, happily — we can loosen the grip of social comparison.  A few suggestions follow.

First of all, turn it around — I/we can look at ways that we’d like to improve and see if there are others who inspire us.  For example, I wonder about all the ways I can help stave off (or at least ameliorate) climate change.  I know we need big systemic change to do this effectively — and, at the same time, I know that there are many, many small steps each of us can take.  To find out what others are doing,  two days ago I started a new Facebook group called, “Saving the Planet One Small Step at a Time.”  Already, I can compare myself to those who are using very fundamental cleaning supplies (plain baking soda and apple cider vinegar instead of store bought shampoo) and with a friend of friend whose blog, “The Non-Consumer Advocate,” focuses on ways we can all end our soul and planet destroying wasteful consuming ways.

I want to compare myself with these folks — they help me aspire to do better.

Even here, though, the comparison needs to be thoughtful.  Recently, when a post showed up on Facebook about a recent study showing that Vermonters spend less time grooming themselves than residents of any other state, I was quite pleased at this distinction.  So were many of my Vermont friends.  One could argue that this shows a heightened connection with nature and an awareness of the chemicals in cosmetics, etc.   Or … could it just be unhealthy Vermont exceptionalism?  I’m not sure.

Sometimes, I strive to be the one others look up to.  When I’m teaching meditation classes, I try to lead by example (ie, meditating every day).  When I mediate, I work at being the calm eye in the midst of a raging conflict storm.  Like most mediators, I try to model productive conflict strategies.

Here, too, it is important to be self-aware.  We are all on journeys.  I myself have a lot to learn about meditation.  And I also can get caught up in personally challenging conflicts.  Even while modeling, I need to remain humble, which is not easy.

Second, we can reframe how we view our own situations.  For example, I have a lot of social comparison issues with my house.  All too often I look at others’ homes and think, I wish I had your house, not mine.  Yet my house has many wonderful aspects.  As a former barn, it is unique, special, interesting, artsy, roomy, and comfortable.  My house is situated in the heart of a thriving, supportive community and across the street from a beautiful Vermont lake.  It is not perfect.  Neither am I.  Lately, when I catch myself obsessing about my house’s shortcomings, I try to reframe my thinking to focus on all its plusses instead.

Third, if you catch yourself thinking that your house — or whatever else — is better than, that is a fine time to practice gratitude.  Feeling grateful for is much more positive than feeling superior to.

Fourth, I’ll turn back to Annie Leonard and her more recent offering, “The Story of Solutions.”  On a personal level, on a systems level, can we turn away from “more” and focus on “better” instead?  Better choices, that is — not “better than.”  This simple formula for re-defining our goals is particularly powerful in curbing materialistic social comparison cravings.

Fifth, try making your own “Positivity Portfolio.”  I learned about this technique in the Certificate in Positive Psychology program I’m currently enrolled in.  Instructor Tal Ben-Shahar introduced us to this happiness tool, first developed by James Pawelski at the University of Pennsylvania.  The idea is to focus on a way in which you would like to change for the better, and then assemble a package of pictures, quotes, music, etc. — whatever stirs your heart and inspires you in this area.  I did a power point Positivity Portfolio on the theme of abundance, to counteract my social comparison tendencies.

At first the project was awesome!  I was so excited listing the abundance in my life, and finding photos to illustrate the list.  But then, the list got too big and the project dragged on and on.  It took me days to build my portfolio. I just have too much!  I mean that in a good way.  Clearly, life is incredibly abundant.  It was an excellent project.

Fifth, perhaps most importantly: meditate.  In order to loosen the grip of social comparison in our lives, we have to first develop an awareness of its existence within.  I can think of no better tool to heighten self-awareness than a regular meditation practice.  Meditation can also help us become more compassionate toward ourselves and others, instead of “less than” or “better than.”

My good enough bone builders sneakers.

My good enough bone builders sneakers.

In any case, despite what I wrote at the beginning of this essay, I think I am improving my ability to recognize social comparison creeping into my thinking.  When I recognize it, I am more likely to lean into my own abundance, and let go of envy.

For example, a few weeks back, during a Bone Builders class, I glanced at the shoes of the woman next to me.  This woman is also a friend, a lovely person who happens to have a lot more money than I have.  She had spiffy new shoes.  Not over the top, but very stylish.  Then I looked back at my own shoes, which are old, with a lot of mileage and one noticeable dot of teal paint on them.  It was a ripe moment for social comparison.  Instead, rather than covet my friend’s shoes — or even worse, resent her affluence — I found the whole situation humorous.  Kind of sweet, even.  My own shoes are just fine.  They do the job.  I like the paint spot.  I do not need to buy new shoes.  All is well.

One final thought: abundance comes in many guises.  True, it has not been a good year for my blueberries.  But there were enough berries this summer to go outside with my two year-old granddaughter almost every day and pick blueberries together.  This was a special activity for just the two of us, and it is a memory I can savor forever.  That, my friends, is abundance.

 

 

 

Simply Happy

I am a big fan of Annie Leonard and her colleagues at Free Range Studios.  Their 2007 video, “The Story of Stuff,” dramatically shifted my attitude away from consumerism and a growth economy.  Thanks to this zippy, powerful 20 minute video, I create most of my art now with recycled materials; I find replacement wine glasses from used stuff stores (since my household seems to be in contention for the wine-glass-breaking record); and even most of what I buy for the precious grand baby comes from consignment stores.  Watching “The Story of Stuff” was transformational.

That video is also one of the reasons I am on the happiness path, which offers an appealing alternative to the hedonic treadmill and the environmental and cultural devastation wrought by our stuff addiction.  Research shows that happier people buy less stuff — which makes sense, because happy people are busy experiencing life, being kind, exercising, meditating, taking care of others, etc.

Leonard’s 2007 video helped convince me of the urgency for massive cultural change away from the Gross National Product (GNP) paradigm and toward a Gross National Happiness (GNH) paradigm — a shift that needs to happen at every level, within us as individuals on up through international systems.   Now she and her crew have a new video that is almost as powerful: “The Story of Solutions,” which describes both the current paradigm and the much needed paradigm shift in far more understandable language.  “More” drives our lives as cogs in a growth economy.  “Better” is the goal for sustainable solutions and happier humans.  So simple, so elegant, so spot on.  Though the phrase “Gross National Happiness” resonates with me, it has not been universally embraced.  In contrast, who can argue with the clean, clear, bottom line: “better”?

My work is mostly focused on helping individuals make a happiness paradigm shift at a personal level, beginning with myself, of course.  I often ponder the choices my husband and I make in the context of climate change and happiness writ large and small.  This helps me understand ways I need to grow toward sustainable happiness, and ways to share these options with others.

Our well used dinner candles in the morning light.

Our well used dinner candles in the morning light.

Last night was no exception.  I was thinking of “The Story of Solutions” because we had a “better” not “more” kind of evening.  My husband and I were enjoying the pea soup he had cooked while I was in town co-leading a “How of Happiness” study group.  Is there a food more humble than pea soup?  We also had locally-baked bread to dip in garlic oil (the garlic came from our backyard) and a salad.  It’s gotten cold here, so the wood stove in the kitchen was blazing.  For many, many years we’ve eaten dinner by candlelight — always sharing a toast with a glass of wine (white for him, red for me).  That’s what we did last night, too, but there was nothing fancy about the entire scenario — just a humble meal for a long-time married couple.

I was, simply, happy.

Who needs more?

I happen to love pea soup, but the point is, choosing better over more is not  a sacrifice.  It is a happy way forward, for ourselves and our planet.  It’s a solution we can live with.

The Urgency Of Sharing Happiness

In early July, I spent hours and hours painting 170 glittery hearts on small rocks I pick up while walking on Vermont’s dirt roads.

170 heart stones ready to hand out at the parade

I normally give heart stones to people who come to the Happiness Paradigm Store and Experience as a tangible reminder of how important generosity is to happiness.  This batch of stones was specifically painted to hand out to spectators at Montpelier‘s Fourth of July parade.  A group of friends and family joined me in a Happiness Paradigm contingent, including my husband Bob playing happy songs on the ukulele with a miscellaneous group of back-up singers.

Two children — 3 year-old Edwin and 5 year-old Avery — were the primary stone givers.  Edwin was low key in his baseball cap, but Avery was sporting an amazing face painting, a cape, a wizard hat, and bells strapped to her shoes so she made music when she ran — which she did, quite earnestly, to put the stones in welcoming hands.  Anyone fortunate enough to get a stone from either child had to have experienced a surge of happiness.

Edwin and Avery, getting ready for the parade to start.

It was a delightful and lighthearted experience — and, very, very serious.

Working in the happiness field has a multitude of rewards, but what truly motivates me is my concern for the environment — more precisely, climate change.  I am a strong believer in the urgent to need to shift our personal and societal definitions of success toward genuine well being and away from money and material goods.  The latter not only fails to take happiness into consideration but also feeds our runaway consumerism.  This, among other evils, trashes the environment to such an extent that our very survival as a species is in peril. Whereas, following the happiness path is a map toward a compassionate and sustainable future.

You may think this is hyperbole, but I don’t mean it as such.  Many brilliant, sober, knowledgeable individuals have connected the dots between our obsession with a growth economy and the destruction of the earth, our home.  For just one quick example, check out Annie Leonard and “The Story of Stuff.”  It is no accident that everything for sale at The Happiness Paradigm is re-cycled or re-purposed.

But back to the parade … our weather that evening was heavenly, an absolutely perfect summer blessing.  The same could not be said for Washington, D.C. where we lived for several decades before moving to Vermont.

The weather there was dreadful.  The unprecedented derecho that clobbered D.C. residents — along with millions of others from Chicago through West Virginia and out to the Atlantic Ocean — was enormously destructive.  At least 22 people died, and nearly 4 million customers were without electricity for nearly a week — a period of “unrelenting, stifling heat,” according to an AccuWeather.com report.

That means, many millions of folks were truly suffering.

I knew heat when I lived in D.C.  One summer weekend, when our kids were away at summer camp in Vermont, the temperature crept into the low 100’s.  My husband and I got cold salads from the grocery store and camped out in our bedroom, where we had a window air conditioning unit.  It was just too hot to be anywhere else in the house.  We did go to a movie that night, and I remember standing in line outside the theater in the early evening when it was still hot and humid enough for sweat to roll down my back.

One weekend of that in the 1980’s was kinda fun.  It’s not fun anymore — especially when you factor in the fires, floods, tornadoes, and a drought being compared to the dust bowl, all in our country in the last year.  Scary.

And scarier: read Bill McKibben’s new article in Rolling Stone magazine: “Global Warming’s Terrifying Math.”  McKibben, who strikes me as more of a straight-shooter than a fear monger, says he is almost without hope that future humans will be able to survive on this planet.

It just doesn’t get any bleaker.

Fortunately for me, I’ve also been reading Barbara Frederickson’s seminal book, Positivity.   Frederickson’s words are helping me keep my own spirits buoyed, which is absolutely a good thing.  Her years of research have proven that negativity shrinks our ability to see options.  Positivity demonstrably leads to greater resilience and increased creativity in problem solving.

Frederickson calls this broadening, and I saw this principle at work yesterday after a session of laughter yoga at the Happiness Paradigm.  We were discussing why happiness matters in light of climate change, and one participant observed that when we’re happier, we have much broader vision and greater appreciation for the beauty of the natural world around us.  Thus, we will be much more motivated to take better care of the environment.

Another giant in the positive psychology field, Martin Seligman, stresses that working from strengths makes us individually happier — and his website has a free test anyone can take to learn more about what our personal strengths are.  It also seems extraordinarily practical to know how to make our best contributions to tackle the challenges ahead.

Happier people are also more optimistic, a precious trait in tough times.  As Seligman, puts it:

“Optimism is invaluable for the meaningful life.  With a firm belief in a positive future, you can throw yourself into the service of that which is larger than you are.”

There is an awful lot right now that is larger than we are, tribulations that will severely test our resilience, and tremendous problems that will demand widespread creativity to solve.  Frederickson and Seligman both remind me of the urgency in spreading happiness.  So does this Albert Einstein quote recently making its way through social media:  “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

The “same thinking” has been the growth economy.  We need a new paradigm to solve the problems.  A happiness paradigm.  ASAP.