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Why any comparison should carry a health warning


Sitting reading an article in June’s Stylist Magazine with the title “The Happiness Myth; is our endless quest for contentment actually making us feel worse?” is an ironically depressing experience. A title like this demonstrates the problem with happiness in our (especially British) society right now. It’s not cool to try and be happy, and you’ll never get there anyway – so what’s the point?

On the same day, I read the Independent’s 2015 ‘Happy List’. A wonderfully heart-warming list of people who have spent their lives doing good for other people. Only to be rewarded by a nomination in one of the UK’s most widely-read papers. I read the list with awe, which quickly turned to another emotion. Jealousy.

Am I not a good enough person? Am I too selfish? Is the only way to be happy to give up everything in a life serving other people? Thankfully I catch myself before this becomes too much of a downward spiral.

This is the problem. There is always someone to compare to where we come off worse. In a hedonic way – the better holidays shared on Facebook, the more exclusive handbags or diamonds or cars. As I write, I am enjoying my first ever business class flight (which is wonderful by the way, thank you British Airways) – and yet I still find myself looking down the aisle at the people in first class. This is well documented in the happiness research (see this link for a summary); coined “the hedonic treadmill”, our extrinsic gains (money, flashy-and-expensive goods) bring us good feeling briefly, but it doesn’t last because we adapt to it. And we’re quickly waiting for the next step up.

Then there is the altruistic comparison. I try and think kind thoughts, help people when they need it, and run a business all about using positive psychology to make people’s lives better. I give to various charities regularly and use my business to help schools for free. But I still say no to some requests for more money. I still walk past some people in need. I don’t help everyone that I technically could help, because I also like to live somewhere decent, buy and eat nice things and go on the occasional holiday.

These people that give up everything are AMAZING and I don’t use those capitals lightly. The point I am trying to make is that comparing yourself on a hedonic or altruistic level is pointless, because you’ll never win. Happiness isn’t a place you will just end up, it is far more contextual and transient. Even Mother Teresa probably had bad days.

So what’s my advice? Well here’s what I did, hopefully it will help you if you’ve ever had a day of jealousy/guilt or anywhere in between:

Stop, breathe, and enjoy.

You are living. Millions aren’t. You are conscious. Millions aren’t. You have senses, a mind, and lungs to breathe in and out. Whatever your situation, you also have choices. Use them.

Say thank you.

Look around you right now, what are you grateful for? From your outfit to your job to your family to your friends to your home – you don’t have to be sitting in a pool of luxury to have some wonderful things around you. That’s awesome.


You don’t have to be on The Independent’s Happy List to be altruistic in a small way. The tiniest of things can make someone’s day, and doing so will in turn make yours. Here are my favourite quick wins that you can generally do anywhere:

* Pick up some litter

* Phone a friend or family member you haven’t spoken to in a while – just to say hello

* The next, car, plane, bus, commuter you see, silently wish them a wonderful day. Try to really mean it. For more on this theme see a wonderful TED talk by Matthieu Ricard here.

* Offer someone a drink when you get yourself one. Or even pay for a stranger in the queue behind you. * Inspired by Phil Zimbardo (for more see here), give something to the next homeless person you see – a meal, some money, whatever you like. But don’t just drop it and walk away. Get down on their level and introduce yourself and shake their hand. They’re human too and your kindness can make a difference.

I hope these tips help you as they often help me. And of course comment with any of your other ideas below. If you want specific support on feeling better at work, check out our Flourish at Work tool:



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