Imagine the Olympics, where you have the three winners of a race standing on the podium: the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
Imagine what it’s like to be the silver medalist. If you’d been just one second faster, you could have won the gold! Damn! So close! Damn damn damn! Full of envy, you’d keep comparing yourself to the gold winner.
Now imagine what it’s like to be the bronze medalist. If you’d been just one second slower, you wouldn’t have won anything! Awesome! You’d be thrilled that you’re officially an Olympic medalist and get to stand on the winner’s podium.
Comparing up versus comparing down: Your happiness depends on where you’re focusing.
The metaphor is easy to understand, but hard to remember in regular life. If you catch yourself burning with envy or resentment, think like the bronze medalist, not the silver. Change your focus. Instead of comparing up to the next-higher situation, compare down to the next-lower one.
For example, if you aim to buy “the best” thing, you may feel like gold when you get it, but when the new “best” thing comes out next year, you’ll feel that silver envy. Instead, if you aim to buy the “good enough” thing, it will keep you in the bronze mindset. Since you’re not comparing to the best, you’ll feel no need to keep up.
I’ve met a lot of famous musicians. The miserable ones were upset that they weren’t more famous, because they’d bitterly compare themselves to the superstars. The happiest ones were thrilled to be able to make a living making music.
On the other hand, when you’re being ambitious, trying to be the best at a specific skill, it’s good to be dissatisfied, like that silver medalist focusing on the gold. You can use that drive to practice and improve.
But most of the time, you need to be more grateful for what you’ve got, for how much worse it could have been, and how nice it is to have anything at all. Ambition versus gratitude. Comparing up versus comparing down.
For funnier thoughts on this, search the web for Louis C.K.’s “everything is amazing and nobody is happy” and Jerry Seinfeld’s “silver medal” routines.