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How reference points affect our happiness

Reading Time: 3 minutes

It happens every day. We feel content with ourselves and life, for the most part, until we see somebody else who is doing better.

We begin to question our jobs, our choices, and even ourselves. What led us to this point and how is somebody else enjoying life so much more than we are?

It is hard not to compare ourselves to others when we see a constant stream of information and pictures about other’s lives, whether on our smartphones or on the television. It is hard not to be jealous when we’re sitting in the office and we see an Instagram post of someone on vacation on a Greek island, surrounded by turquoise waters and dancing the night away, drink in hand.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult for our minds to think in absolutes, instead using reference points to make judgements. A reference point is an existing standard which all following information is compared to. Let’s say you make $55,000 annually. This may feel great to you, but when you look at your co-worker with a $90,000 salary, you may not feel so accomplished. This is the hard reality about reference points.

Do reference points affect our happiness in everyday life? Absolutely. We have two main reference points that we refer to and with which we compare ourselves. The first is our own past. We compare our current salary to our old salary, which may be higher or may be lower. We compare our current relationship to our old relationships, compare our current cars to our old cars, and so on. What was our happiness level back then in comparison to now?

The other main reference point (and probably the more impactful of the two) is the situation for other people. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and many other social media platforms expose us to the lives of hundreds, or even thousands, of other people. And that’s not including the perspectives we see on television and other forms of news media, too.

Social media leads to social comparison, which in turn leads to lower self-esteem. We use these people as reference points to compare ourselves to, whether it be their career, their body, or what they’re doing for fun, and research shows that it almost always negatively impacts us.

Spiritual leader and author Adyashanti teaches that happiness comes when enlightenment comes, and enlightenment can only come once you have attained a living experience of having no reference points.

So how do we rid ourselves of these reference points? One of the most important tactics is to avoid social comparison. The worst kind of reference is other people, especially in the age of social media. Deleting social media apps would be the most effective, but if you’re not willing to do this, take control of the content on your phone. Unfollow any accounts that make you feel insecure or bad about yourself. Limit screen time and consume less. This may be difficult, but it’s an important step toward overcoming reference points.

Concretely re-experiencing old reference points can also help. If we can find a way to go back and experience times from our past, we may realize that the present is not so bad. Try to imagine how life was before we had certain luxuries or sources of happiness. This can really help put things into perspective. Observing other, less fortunate reference points, is efficient as well. If work is seeming awful, just imagine the experience of someone who is unemployed and struggling to make ends meet.

Finally, make sure to continue practicing gratitude. Gratitude puts an end to social comparison, and instead lets us appreciate the better parts of our life. After all, if comparison is the thief of joy, then gratitude is the killer of envy.