Who Is Worse Off than I Am? There, I Feel Better Now

If comparing ourselves favorably to others brings about happiness, is this OK?

Posted May 16, 2011

Increasing one's gratitude is one of the most common recommendations of happiness researchers. How does one increase one's gratitude? We could use those gratitude journals, I suppose. Martin Seligman describes a type of "gratitude visit" we could make to friends and family we care deeply for. We could just become more conscious of the little things- nothing wrong with that.

My question is, to what degree is this a matter of following famed pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer's advice?

"The best consolation in misfortune or affliction of any kind will be the thought of other people who are in a still worse plight than yourself; and this is a form of consolation open to every one." Schopenhauer

If you are convinced developing gratitude happens through other means, and is not a matter of distinguishing your situation from other's- fine. Good for you perhaps, because Schopenhauer does not have the general outlook with  which many of us identify.

But if his description of a common "consolation" sounds accurate enough- wait a minute. That wasn't actually advice.

Schopenhauer is so well represented by the TV character House, MD that you could think of one or the other and do fine. So picture House, MD uttering the above line. Would he be sincere? If he pointed out that some colleague ought not to complain because someone else is doing worse- he'd be sending something up, right? He'd be sending up the idea that this is a legitimate means to feeling better.

Schopenhauer's above quotation continues with, "But what an awful fate this means for mankind as a whole!"

The point I mean to make is a general one, a little caution against our take on the
positive correlations found between happiness and indicators of social prestige. Some of these, for example, are in the World Database of Happiness under the finding on "Occupation", (managers and professionals being typically happier than clerks and unskilled laborers).

Even if we can establish that prestige matters very much to us, we have not yet established that comparing ourselves favorably to others is an ethical way to proceed.

Does it give us a boost? I bet. What gives us a boost isn't always what's right. 

Can it be avoided? I suspect we can enagage in more or less of it.

Many of us have experience of times when we compared ourselves more and less. Given we have some control over the behavior... could it make us less moral each time we do it? 

Schopenhauer and House, MD types are not exactly known for overpromising when it comes to any answer to "why be ethical?" They each, however, do seem to worry that we are very quick to blame people for their poor life conditions, and very phony to take these compliments to ourselves to heart. 

"People like talking about people. Makes us feel superior. Makes us feel in control." House, MD

The position they take is one well worth maintaining: sure we can find steps to "happiness", common ones, ones used successfully by people to feel "better." But we might still want to distinguish between what we think we ought to be grateful for from how we might come to feel grateful.

About this, Schopenhauer is pretty direct:

"We are like lambs in a field, disporting themselves under the eye of the butcher, who chooses out first one and then another for his prey. So it is that in our good days we are all unconscious of the evil fate may have presently in store for us--sickness, poverty, mutilation, loss of sight or reason."

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