Saturday, June 9, 2012

Tip #24: The grass may be greener, but so what?

Through the wonderful figure of Don Quixote, Cervantes told us that "all comparisons are odious," and I think he was definitely onto something. This week I got my contract for next year. Although I'm tenured (thank you God and everybody else), we still get yearly contracts with our salary for the next school year. As my memory is not that great, when I saw my salary I was quite happy, as I thought, "Wow! I make a lot!" Then, the next page in that contract listed how much my increase had been from last year. Not so good, really. But the following page was even worse: a list with averages of the salaries other colleagues make, according to rank and school. Well, it turns out that compared to my peers, I really don't make that much. Injustice! Tragedy! Why do I make so little!! So, I told myself, "Let's rewind. I was so happy with my salary, WHEN I DIDN'T COMPARE IT TO ANYBODY'S." Easy solution then: Go back to moment one and stop there.

This a very difficult thing to learn, though, but really necessary to be happy. Some years ago I read a very interesting article in the New Yorker by James Surowiecki in which he talks about the "ultimatum game" which is used in experiments in behavioral economics.  This is how he describes it:
The game is simple enough. Take two people. Give them a hundred dollars to split. One person (the proposer) decides, on his own, what the split should be (fifty-fifty, seventy-thirty, or whatever) and makes the other person a take-it-or-leave-it offer. If he accepts the deal, both players get their share of the money. If he rejects it, both players walk away empty-handed.
The rational thing for the second person to do is to accept the offer, whatever it is, since even one dollar is better than nothing. But in practice this rarely happens. Instead, lowball offers are almost always rejected. Apparently, people would rather throw away money than let someone else walk away with too much.
Can you imagine? If someone gives you a dollar, you'll be happy, but the moment you know that the other guy is getting more, you  don't even want your dollar! He goes on to say that this is good in the long term for the system as a whole, so it is fairer. But, if we just look at the game itself and how people react to it, I think you can see clearly that it is not in our best interest to compare ourselves with others, because the context, alone, changes the meaning of everything. Unfortunately, we rarely think of this in our everyday circumstances.

Another example of this situation, I think, is actually the parable of the prodigal son in the New Testament. If you don't remember it, here's a summary of what I recall of it. A rich man has two sons, one good, obedient and hard working, and one that is not. The "bad" son asks his father for his inheritance, leaves with the money, and spends it all partying. The good son keeps doing good things for his father. The years go by and one day the lost son comes back. His father is very happy and throws a party for him and gives him all sorts of presents. The good brother gets angry but the father says: "You have been taken care of, so don't complain." I remember never really understanding this story when I was young. The good brother was right, I thought. He had worked hard, by the rules, and the bad brother got the party? Hello? But, you know, the good brother was just like me when I saw my salary. He was completely happy until his brother showed up. Had his life changed? No, not really.

So, in the end, it always goes back really to Tip #1: Be grateful. Be thankful for what you have, no matter what it is, because it is a lot. Maybe our yard looks kind of tattered compared to the neighbors (a true fact), but you know what? I have a yard!! I grew up in an apartment and now I have a yard, with actual grass!! Let's not compare ourselves to others and avoid completely unnecessary pain. And, going back to my salary, yes, other people make more money than I do, and I could look at it as an injustice, but I don't have time to waste, honestly. That's one thing my diagnosis has made even clearer. I can look at the salary, be thankful and happy, and just move on.

Have you had similar experiences? What do you think?

photo credit: Foto_di_Signorina via photo pin cc


  1. que bien lo has dicho,hay que estar contento con lo que se tiene, que siempre es mucho. Felicidades a Johnny que cumpla muchos mas.Enri

  2. Estoy totalmente de acuerdo. Y siempre me gustan los tips. Besos.

  3. ¡Muchos gracias para los tips profesora! Están inestimable. Brent