Last week, my wife and I enjoyed a week in the tropical Punta Cana, located in the Dominican Republic, with another couple. We sipped Piña Coladas and relaxed on the white sandy beaches, occasionally immersing ourselves in the clear blue ocean water that puts our American East Coast beaches to shame. Thanks to a Groupon all-inclusive deal, we lived a week of leisure at the resort without worrying about paying for food, drinks, or anything else except tips for the workers who helped make our stay so enjoyable. I’m happy to be feeling refreshed and ready to jump back into a routine.
On the shuttle ride from the airport to our resort, my wife and I, along with the couple we vacationed with, got to talking to an older couple in the seats near us. We found out that they had been married 27 years and they’d vacationed a time or two on other islands. They asked how we’d found out about the deal, and we mentioned we’d found it on Groupon as they had. We told them we like to find good deals for traveling, like when we used a site called Slickdeals to find crazy-cheap flight tickets for another trip. As the conversation moved along, the husband then mentioned that he works for a factory that makes foam for diapers which are used somewhere near where we were vacationing. We talked about that for a bit, then after a bit of pause, he asked me (seemingly out of nowhere), “You drive a Jaguar?” Chuckling, I say, “Nah.” “Mercedes?” “No,” I say, “I just drive a little Mazda3.” Thinking maybe he’s a car guy who was trying to transition into a topic he was interested in, I asked him what kind of car he drove. I think he said he drove a Nissan Maxima, but he didn’t say anything more to express interest in cars. “Oh, nice, that’s a good car.” I replied, not sure where to go from there. It’s a fine car, but not in the same category as a Jaguar or Mercedes, so I was still puzzled by his question. That was the end of that exchange.
When we got off the shuttle, the four of us talked about how weird and out-of-the-blue the question was. If you know the way I dress and present myself, you know I’m unfashionable and I’m certain I’d never give the impression I drive a fancy car. As I thought about the question for another second and about the kind of false bravado his personality seemed to exude, I wondered aloud to the others: “If he would randomly ask me, a guy he’s just met, if I drive a Jaguar, status must be something he values about a person. He also talked about taking his wife out to eat every night when they were young, that she never had to cook. Since he’s a factory worker, maybe his income is a bit on the lower end. Nothing wrong with that, but maybe he feels some kind of pressure to overcompensate, to make himself out to be a wealthy guy by making comparisons. He seems like the kind of guy who’s really insecure about himself and about his financial situation, and as a result tries extra hard to keep up with the nonexistent Joneses.”
The next morning, my buddy tells me “I ran into Jaguar guy at the gym this morning. What you said about him being insecure definitely seems to be true. I was benching and this guy goes, ‘How much you benching? I bet I can bench that’. He did like 2 reps and then gave up. ‘You’re a big dude, I’ll give you that.'” My friend was pretty annoyed by this grotesque show of one-upmanship and tried to ignore him the rest of the time at the gym.
It was now so obvious that this man was an insecure mess, trying to prove his manliness and status by talking about cars and daily restaurants, and trying to prove his strength at the gym. The need to try to compare himself favorably against other people to puff himself up was painfully apparent to us.
I have to imagine this guy was probably in a load of debt as he tried to hold himself up to a standard of living and status that nobody else actually cares about. It seemed like his whole sense of self depended on his ability to spend on luxuries he likely can’t afford, thinking others are going to be impressed.
While most of us aren’t so transparently insecure, we all are tempted at times to compare ourselves to those around us in order to gauge our success in life. We see on Facebook the cars and houses our friends buy, the careers or promotions they achieve, the trips they take, the weddings they celebrate, and we subconsciously compare ourselves to see how we’re doing. Since we’re seeing the highlight reel of everybody else’s life, this comparison doesn’t tend to work in our favor.
The important key, however, is to learn to celebrate these good things in other people’s lives, to share in their joys and to genuinely congratulate them on their achievements. Generally, I think the happier we are for others and the more excited we are for them in their triumphs, the happier and more excited they tend to be for us. Jealousy and envy are worse than useless. They only embitter the heart and lead to unhappiness, strained friendships, and poor financial decisions in an attempt to keep up.
Learn to be confident and content in your own income, your own house and car, your own relationship, your own accomplishments, and your overall situation in life. Live according to what’s wise and prudent for you, not what may be wise (or unwise) for somebody else’s financial situation.
Don’t worry about anyone else.
Don’t compare yourself.