My two teenager daughters are suckers for Desperate Housewives, the television soap opera detailing all the jealousy, intrigue, backstabbing and criminal activity that lays behind the doors and manicured lawns of that upscale suburban neighborhood, Wisteria Lane.
Although almost all the inhabitants are beautiful and affluent, no one stays happy for long. All of these ‘best friends’ are miserable in their constant comparison with each other.
So I was fascinated to read a recent intriguing study of suicide, carried out by Mary Daly and Daniel Wilson of the US Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, with Norman Johnson of the US Census Bureau. They examined suicide deaths to see if it had anything to do with income.
The rich are different
Although it appeared that the less you made the more likely you were to kill yourself, closer analysis showed this wasn’t the case.
It was true that individuals in the very lowest income bracket – with family incomes below $20,000 in 1990 dollars (the equivalent of about $31,000 US in 2006) — were significantly more likely to commit suicide than those with incomes above $60,000.
But for anyone making anything over $20,000, one’s own income had no significant effect on suicide risk.
The only time individual income mattered in any way was in comparison to the level of income in your own county.
And most startling of all, the richest areas of America had the greatest risk of suicide.
So Daly, Wilson and Johnson examined this a little more closely. They looked at whether this had anything to do with the high cost of living, or the high cost of housing, or the difference between renters and buyers, the cost of living across the entire state, the reporting biases about suicides or even poorer access to emergency health care.
Me and Mrs. Jones
But in every instance, the only connection that wouldn’t go away was the effect of comparing one’s own income to others around you. And the richer everyone was around you, the more miserable you were likely to be.
In the crudest terms, for every $10,000 more your neighbors made than you, your suicide probability increased by 7.5 per cent.
Simple desire to keep up with the Joneses was the most likely ingredient for self-harm.
Most significantly, in the Federal Reserve study, the higher the benchmark (in terms of the most affluent neighbourhoods), the higher the stakes, the more likely the inhabitants were to find themselves falling short and the greater the suicide risk.
Income envy across the pond
Income envy also is rife in Europe. Another study prepared by Andrew Clark and Claudia Senik from the Paris School of Economics, showed once again that Europeans also are constantly judging themselves by examining where they stand on the economic ladder in comparison to everyone around them.
In the European Social Survey, which polled 34,000 people from 23 countries, Clark and Senik found that three-quarters of those polled in Europe believed that it was important to compare their own earnings against others. Nevertheless, the more they did so, the unhappier they became.
The researchers judged happiness through responses to questions about whether people believe that they live comfortably, felt optimistic, had been depressed recently and felt satisfied with their lives thus far.
The least harmful to overall happiness were comparisons made against co-workers, while income envy of family members proved to be far more erosive.
Nevertheless, the toxic of all was what I call the Wisteria Lane Syndrome: comparisons against one’s friends. These were considered twice as damaging as against work colleagues.
The constant yardstick
The other fascinating aspect of this study and others that examine happiness is that they scientifically confirm that overall rise in standard of living doesn’t buy happiness and contentment.
As two studies have demonstrated, someone’s self-declared happiness had nothing to do with any objective benchmark, such as increase in overall national income, but only whether he felt that he measured favourably against entirely personal benchmarks: his aspirations and expectations of what he should be making, particularly as compared with everyone around him.
It’s called the Easterlin Paradox, in psychology studies, and it means that there is no objective measure of success, only individual measures formed by our aspirations and expectations and those of our nearest and dearest.
A yardstick is always on hand, to measure my accomplishments, my possessions, my money and even my children against yours.
So it’s come to this. In our modern-day world, happiness is entirely dependent upon expectation and certain entirely arbitrary or conditional standards against which you judge yourself, which are usually what you believe are the standards of other people.
Studies of optimists and pessimists show that optimistic people only compare themselves with those less fortunate (lucky me), whereas pessimistic people make constant comparisons with the more successful and find themselves wanting (unlucky me). Both in a sense are toxic. On the one hand you enhance yourself by demonstrating that you’re so much better off than all the other sorry souls around you; on the other, that you are the sorriest soul you know.
Taking out the competition
There’s a growing batch of research demonstrating that when you remove the competitive nature of human relationships, we begin to flourish. New developments in behaviorial psychology and biology reveal that we were never meant to live a life of fundamental isolation and self-serving survival.
Compare this to the research I’ve discussed before of a sampling of Americans in the US’s lowest income bracket. They suffered from virtually no stress about their financial circumstances, so long as they had two means of support: a strong spiritual connection and a strong community. Clearly, even when engaged in a daily struggle to survive, they were able to manage so long as they didn’t do so alone.
It’s now evident why ‘Do not covet your neighbor’s goods’ was included in the Ten Commandments. Comparison is one of the most toxic of all human endeavors. It’s time we thought about setting up a new style of neighborhood, where the primary goal isn’t a bigger car or a more immaculate lawn but a committed, supportive and sharing community, whatever its income level.