How The People You Hang Out With Can Make You Happy (Or Not)

There is a theory which I have heard more than one life coach put forward that goes like this: you should hang out with people who are richer and more successful than you are, so that the attitudes and habits that have made them rich and/or successful will rub off on you.   Hanging out with these people will create a healthy amount of dissatisfaction with your life and therefore motivate you to set goals and achieve great things.  Mixing with people who have achieved the things that you want to achieve will motivate you to achieve more.

On the other hand, psychologists researching the field of “happiness” are finding that the more we compare ourselves to others (particularly others who are richer, more successful or “better” in some way), the less likely we are to be happy.  The more we read about the rich and famous, the more advertising we watch that shows us all the things we could have, the more we mix with people who have more material wealth than we have, the less content we feel with our lot.

When I worked in South London, the majority of my clients were either on benefits or were asylum seekers.  Many couldn’t even afford to pay the bus fare to college or to buy a sandwich in the canteen at lunchtime.  I talked to them every day about their lives, and when I went home in my old car to my small flat, I felt rich.  I had plenty.  But when I took a year off on maternity leave, I started spending my days with a group of new mums I had met in antenatal classes.  They all seemed to be investment bankers, lawyers or media types, and they worried about parking their smart cars outside my flat.  I suddenly started to feel that what I had wasn’t good enough, and I didn’t like the feeling.  I can’t say it inspired me to be more ambitious – it just introduced a low level of discontent into my life.  It made me realise that, pleasant as they were, they weren’t the people I wanted to hang out with every day.

Now I’ve done what most people do, and surrounded myself with friends on a similar level of income.  I feel quite content again, and rich in the things that matter – health, family, job satisfaction and friendships.  People like to have friends with a similar income level because it’s comfortable.  You don’t have to be embarrassed about not being able to afford an expensive night out and you don’t have to hide your wealth for fear of embarrassing your friends.

We have also got rid of the television in our house.  We still watch programmes on DVDs and on the iPlayer, but we no longer have advertising pumped daily into our house.  And what a difference it makes!  It’s subtle, but I find myself wanting much less.  My children, when asked, couldn’t even think of things they wanted for Christmas (apart from an invisibility potion that really works – not easy to procure!)

I try not to make comparasions with others at all, because thinking about who has the better house, car, holiday, job or children doesn’t lead to warm and friendly feelings.  It just leads into a way of thinking that marks out some people as better or worse than others (and there will always be others better than you).  If I catch myself making comparisons, I will stop myself.  But I can’t say I never do it at all.  Maybe a few Buddhist monks manage it, but most of us make comparasions, whether we are aware of them or not.  And it’s the subconscious comparasions that are very hard to challenge because we don’t even notice we are making them.

Societies where there is greater inequality tend to be less happy, because people are comparing themselves to the very rich.  And the interesting thing is that even the richer people in unequal societies are less happy – after all, there is always someone richer than you, and the values in unequal societies promote the acquisition of wealth rather than the sharing of it.

So if we really do want to be happy, maybe we should be choosing jobs and activities that bring us into contact with people who have less than we do.  Voluntary work is one way of doing this.  Interestingly, the research on happiness also shows that altruistic acts increase our happiness levels too.  We should also be avoiding careers that will have us mixing with with those who are richer and more successful than we are (unless we can develop the strength of character to avoid getting into negative thought patterns and comparasions).

Of course, if we think that wealth and success are more important than happiness, then we should do the opposite!  Bring on the social climbers, and let them get on with it.

There is a pervasive narrative in society that we should all achieve and succeed to the best of our ability, and in the process earn as much money as we can, but really, it’s time to think a bit harder about what we value.  Most of us say we want to be happy, but we don’t always choose things that will make us happy.  Many people will choose a job that pays more money rather than a jobs that offers flexitime or shorter hours.  Many people relentlessly chase promotions without thinking about whether it will actually bring happiness.

I’ve had a few clients who have given up (or thought about giving up) well paid jobs, to do something they enjoy more but pays less.  They worry about whether they are doing the right thing.  They probably are.  But they still worry that they won’t be happy with less money than they are used to or less money than their friends have.   It’s a brave decision to make.

Having made that decision, they may find that they are really enjoying the new job, but struggling to get used to the new income level (although this often isn’t as difficult as they anticipate).  If it is a struggle, they could help themselves by cultivating friendships with people on a similar income level, making time to meet and talk to people with much less money than they have and limiting the time they spend with those who have more money than they do.

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One response to this post.

  1. Really love the blog. And I so totally agree with this, there is no point comparing oneself to others, whether they are “better off” than you or not. If you surround yourself with like minded people who are in relatively similar circumstances then you will have great friends… and isn’t that all that matters?
    P.s – I work with children… so no green eyed monster there and much job satisfaction.
    x
    http://www.normalityandme.wordpress.com

    Reply

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