Content People Compare Down

by

When my kids were still little, our family would often spend some of our summer time at another family’s cottage. Swimsuits and sunscreen in tow, we’d leave our modest home and drive away to spend a weekend or so at a lake house getaway that seemed like paradise. The cottage was waterfront real estate with nearly everything a kid (or a parent) could want on a hot summer day: a boat, jet skis, inner tubes, lawn games, and plenty of junk food. Compared to regular life at the Seaborn house, it was the lap of luxury. While we were there, we lived like kings and queens.

But vacations have to end, and when our family’s time at the cottage would come to a close, it often felt like the magic was lost, like our carriage had turned back into a pumpkin. On the ride home, the comments from our kids were predictable. “Mom and Dad,” one of them would say, “why don’t we have a cottage like that?” Then somebody else would pipe up. “How come we can’t get a boat?” A minute later, somebody would ask for water-skis for Christmas. They were questions of comparison—the kind of questions that most of us will ask on a regular basis for the rest of our lives: Why can’t we buy what they buy? How come he has more than I do? How’d she get the thing that I want? When will it be my turn to have the most?

At an early age, we learn to evaluate ourselves based on what we see in others. We are constantly taking inventory and putting things side by side—always looking to come out on top. We work to make sure our own achievements match up to somebody else’s. We judge our appearance by comparing it to what we see on magazine covers. We weigh our own pile of stuff against the pile of stuff at our neighbor’s house. And, heaven forbid, if we ever come up short, our first instinct is to add on, advance, upgrade, and improve. Less is never enough; we insist on bigger, better, newer, more.

Yet no matter how high we climb, how far we go, or how much we get, there is always someone who is just a step ahead of us in the process. So, we will wear ourselves out with comparisons—forever chasing the best and the most, but never reaching them. There is hope in the middle of this, though, because a cure exists for all our relentless striving. It’s possible to find an end to our discontent, to get to a place where enough is really enough. And this happens when we start comparing down rather than up.

Years ago, my family and I spent some time in an extremely poor area of New Zealand. The people we met there didn’t have enough money to buy soap—it was a level of poverty that couldn’t not affect us. Compared to them, we had incredible wealth. When we left New Zealand and headed back to the States, I noticed a new sense of gratefulness in my children. They complained less and took less for granted, and they were itching to help people who were in need. Why? Because they had compared down.

Instead of gawking up at people who had more, they’d spent time with people who had less. It changed their perspective on money and on stuff—it gave them eyes that saw deeper and farther and better. My kids learned a priceless lesson on that trip, but it didn’t have to be learned on another continent or in another country. It wouldn’t have taken a different city either, because everywhere around us, people are aching because they don’t have enough. As we check out sports cars and mansions and outfits and TVs, they literally do not have enough. Have you compared yourself to them lately?