One of the things I’ve noticed on blogs/fora where the author is having trouble with marriage or kids or work, or what have you, is that often someone in the comments will say, “Oh, everyone’s life is like that. We’re all miserable/have terrible husbands/rotten kids/awful bosses. You’re normal. That’s normal. Anybody who says differently is a lying liar who lies.”
And this is provided as comfort.
Does it work?
Honestly for me, if I were in a bad situation and got that comment and truly believed it, I might end up being all, “why bother?” If life is going to nasty brutish and short what’s the point? Why continue living or striving? Why not just give up?
I’m glad I don’t believe it. I’m glad I believe that life can be better. That marriages can be functional instead of dysfunctional. That kids can be helped. That there are good job environments out there if the current one is bad. I’m not an optimist, but I am optimistic that if I work hard to change things, life can get better. Maybe not the way I would most prefer, but better than a horrible situation.
The big question though is: Does this kind of comforting actually provide comfort? Do people feel better when they’re in a crappy situation and someone comes along and says yeah, all situations are crappy. (Not, mind you, “it’s not just you” but the more inclusive, “it’s everybody.”)
What does the research say? It is true that people are happier (and healthier) when they’re at the top of a distribution and can point to people with crappy lives. This may be why the Koch brothers and others in the 1% of 1% of 1% are trying to destroy America. Big income disparities make people on the top happier than do little income disparities.
But I don’t think it has to be that way. You’ve got people like Gates trying to bring the bottom up, trying to decrease the income differential.
Research also notes that people who satisfice– who set an external absolute level target– are happier than people who try to optimize. Maybe if you’re focused on comparisons with others, you’re happiest on top, but maybe you’re happier still if you’re not comparing yourself with others at all.
I don’t know the research on this, but my guess is that it is best to focus on absolute levels rather than relative differences. Comparing yourself to other people is a sure way to misery because someone will always be better on any level. (And it must be lonely at the top.) Instead, compare yourself now to the yourself from before and reach for the yourself that you want to be.
And it’s best if you know that that life that you want to have is actually achievable. And it’s more likely to to be achievable if someone else is already achieving it. Because it’s a big world out there, and it would be pretty difficult to be the first person to have a happy marriage, great kids, or a fulfilling job if that had so far eluded the entire world’s population throughout time.
I almost tagged this with deliberately controversial, but I wasn’t sure that it fit (since this is one of those things where there’s so much potential for individual variation), so I stuck with debatable. Still looking forward to discussion!
What do you think? Does being told that everybody has your problem (whatever your problem is) provide comfort? Does it provide despair? What do you prefer as responses ?