“To be upset over what you don’t have is to waste what you do have." – Ken S. Keyes Jr.
The other day, I was eating a delicious, simple, and healthy meal I had made for myself. And then I was struck with a thought: I’d really prefer eating sushi.
I spend a lot of time analyzing my own thought processes and how they influence my happiness. And that previous thought is a paradigmatic example of one kind of thought process that is poison to a happy moment.
Too often, we ruin a perfectly good moment by comparing it to an idealized but nonexistent possible world. Instead of living in reality, we long for a fantasy.
In the case of me wanting to eat sushi instead of what I made for myself, this would seem fairly inconsequential. But in that moment, instead of continuing to enjoy a meal that would normally give me great pleasure, I found considerably less joy in the experience because I was wishing for something different.
Any time you perform a mental comparison in the form of “X is okay, but Y would be better," you remove yourself from the moment and stop appreciating or savoring the experience. Not only are you no longer living in the moment (and we all know we should be in the moment as much as possible), but you take a perfectly good experience and make it worse for yourself.
To add insult to injury, this mental comparison does nothing to improve your situation anyways!
Unfortunately, most of us will make these sorts of comparisons all the time, and in many different contexts.
- “My girlfriend is making me see acceptable movie X, but I want to see awesome movie Y."
- “I shouldn’t have RSVP’d to that party so quickly, since I just got invited to a better one."
- “I ordered the fajitas because I wanted to try something different, but I should have stuck with the tried and true burrito."
By definition, most of our life experiences are fairly average. And in the Western world at least, average is pretty good. That means that these thoughts could be happening dozens of times per day! And that doesn’t even include all of the thoughts we have that take away from really good experiences.
What an incredible waste.
While it is unlikely that any but the most enlightened among us will eliminate these thoughts entirely, there are things we can do to reduce their frequency.
Before getting into these techniques, I want to caution you against a red herring. In the personal development sphere, you may see people suggesting that you make “downward" rather than “upward" comparisons. In other words, instead of thinking “I wish I was eating sushi instead of this home-cooked meal," you could think “This home-cooked meal is way better than that gruel alternative!"
This mental change does benefit your overall happiness. The problem with it, for the purposes of this article, is that it still takes you out of the moment. Switching from upward to downward comparisons is just a Band-Aid. Our goal is to develop the ability to appreciate the things that we have, and reinstate our ability to enjoy the little things in life.
This doesn’t just happen automatically. It takes conscious effort. And that effort involves an understanding that you won’t immediately be “in the moment" and avoid these mental comparisons as soon as you finish this article.
Any exercise that helps foster gratitude or mindfulness in general will be beneficial in this area. Meditate, keep a gratitude journal, etc. But I want to focus on an exercise that will specifically target these kinds of poisonous mental comparisons and help short-circuit them.
It’s quite simple, but also incredibly challenging. We quickly get used to the things that give us pleasure in life, and they become less enjoyable than they once were. That’s why my delicious meal became boring.
Start paying attention, and take note the next time you find yourself making one of these upward comparisons. Depending on the subject matter, the next step may involve finding a relevant downward comparison. But here’s the fun part: you’re going to give up whatever it was that you stopped appreciating for a week, and replace it with the downward comparison if necessary.
Two examples will help demonstrate. If I catch myself being relatively dissatisfied with my meat and veggies concoction (as compared with sushi), I can make the downward comparison that it is certainly better than not having a hot meal at all. For the next week, not only will I not eat sushi, but I won’t eat any hot meals either. I’m going to really enjoy my cooking afterwards!
Perhaps you are at a bar and order a decent beer, but wish you had tried something else. No need for a downward comparison – you can simply avoid alcohol entirely for the next week. Or you can make the comparison, and drink nothing but Bud Ice.
The idea with all of this is that we aren’t just changing the comparisons we make. Any comparisons made in this process are simply a necessary step in the process of self-denial. You aren’t replacing upward comparisons with downward ones. Rather, you are using downward comparisons as a stepping stone to eliminating comparisons entirely, and reconnecting with your ability to appreciate simple pleasures as they occur.
Soon enough, you’ll be able to savor your experiences rather than succumb to distractions and useless comparisons.
Anyways, it’s time for dinner 🙂