I am not a CEO of a major corporation. I’m not a hotshot doctor on the verge of a medical breakthrough. I haven’t won a research grant for the preservation of wildlife in the Honduran waters. I do not speak four languages, and I am not training for an Ironman or a marathon or even a 5K.
I am a teacher and a mom. And most days, that does not seem like a big deal.
Not when I come home with a mountain of papers to grade and a mountain of laundry to do. Not when I find myself eating a sandwich over the kitchen sink before rushing the kids off to soccer practice.
And certainly not when I look around and see how everyone else appears to be living.
If I am to believe everything I see posted on social media or paraded across the television screen, just about everybody seems to be truly living large: fun-filled family vacations and romantic rooms-with-a-view; state champions, prom queens, cross-fit heroes; going to concerts and cooking gourmet food and climbing Mount Everest. Twice. Without oxygen.
So it becomes pretty easy for me to feel small sometimes and to think that everyone else’s life is bigger, better and more fun than my own.
And I do not think this scenario is limited to my own experience.
At a time when “Facebook depression” is a well-known term and the psychological phenomenon of “social comparison” is the topic of a growing number of research articles and best-selling books, many of us are likely to experience the emotional pinch of some kind of feelings of inferiority or inadequacy at one time or another.
In reflecting on times like these, many of us are also likely to agree with Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quip that “comparison is the thief of joy.” *
When we compare ourselves to others–that is, measuring our accomplishments, our jobs, and even our families by the standards of what we perceive to be the epic awesomeness of everyone around us–we often end up feeling like failures, robbing ourselves of happiness and diminishing the value inherent in our own lives.
But while comparison may well be the thief of joy, recent studies in social psychology report that comparison is also an inevitable human tendency as well as a major contributor in the measure of our own personal happiness.
Which leaves us in something of a predicament: If comparison steals our joy and makes us unhappy, but we are hardwired to compare ourselves anyway, then what are we to do? How do we maintain a healthy perspective and guard our joy?
Drew Barrymore, actress, CEO, producer, supermom and, generally, monger of all things fabulous, may have the answer.
She is oft quoted as saying that she has to remind herself of this truth: Happiness is a choice.
We may be tempted to think that happiness would be an easy thing for someone like Barrymore to choose. After all, she is an actress, CEO, producer, supermom–wildly successful, with fame, fortune and fabulousness abounding.
But that is precisely the point: Even for Barrymore, happiness is not a default setting, not a by-product of her fabulousness or wealth or success. She has to choose it.
We do too.
Choosing happiness is not a matter of keeping up with the Joneses. Or the Kardashians. Or anyone else. Not at work or on Facebook or down the street.
It is less about changing careers or lifestyles and more about changing our minds. Deciding to live large. To go big. Right where we are right now.
Much like happiness, big is a choice. It is a choice about perspective.
It is choosing to view the little things as the big things.
It is making what we have and what we are bigger than what we don’t and what we aren’t.
So let us turn away from the glut and hype of what others may have or do. Let us magnify our own lives to help us reclaim our sense of self-worth and restore our joy.
Even in the midst of posts and pictures of the bigger and better, of glitz and glam, we can choose happiness and go big in our own small ways.
We can start by focusing on the exquisite moments of our everydays. And we do have those exquisite moments. Even as teachers and moms.
Sharing a laugh with our children. Witnessing a student’s ah-ha moment in the classroom. Looking up from traffic to catch the glittering remains of a golden sunrise. Conquering 62 emails in 1 hour. Relishing those 12 seconds when all the laundry is done. Looking in on our children sleeping so sweetly after a long day. Savoring that last sip of coffee.
In so doing we will be better prepared when confronted with the poet’s query, which, after all, is really but an echo of the still small voice within: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”1
We will not have to answer that we spent our one precious life looking at everyone else’s. We will not have to admit we wasted it on what we did not have and did not do.
We can respond with confidence that we did not overlook the big moments, that we lived large in the exquisite everyday.
We can say we chose happiness.
As for me? I can say, I am a teacher and a mom. And that’s a pretty big deal.
- There is some debate about the authorial attribution of “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
1 Oliver, Mary. “The Summer Day.” The Truro Bear and Other Adventures: Poems and Essays. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008. 65. Print.
unless otherwise noted * graphics, photographs, text © 2016, 2017 hilary hall