In high school I went on a bicycling/camping trip. We would ride during the day, carrying our tents and cooking gear in packs on our bikes, and camp at night. We had good weather at the start of the trip as we made our way around the perimeter of Prince Edward Island, Canada. For the first few days we stayed near the coast, and so the rides were level and easy. The weather was ideal, sunny but not too hot.
Later, cycling through Nova Scotia, conditions changed. We had hills. We had wind. We had rain. We had cold rain in the wind.
When we first hit the hills, I thought “this is a nice sunny day. It’s too bad we have to ride up these hills or this would be a great ride”. When it was windy, I thought “this is a nice sunny day. This would be a great ride through the hills, if it weren’t for this terrible wind”. On the rainy days, I’d think “this wind wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the rain”. Finally on a cold, rainy day, I found myself saying “I wish it just wasn’t so cold, because really the rain and wind and hills were not so bad when I was warm”. At that point I recognized the pattern I am now describing.
It is easy to become unhappy. Focus on the one condition, on the margin, that upsets you most, like my focus on the rain during a rainy, windy, hilly ride. It is equally easy to make yourself happier. Focus on the one condition, on the margin, that you can be grateful for, like the absence of a headwind on a hilly ride. Psychologists call this type of comparison, “contrast”. It is always our choice whether we contrast “up” and make ourselves feel worse, or contrast “down” and make ourselves feel better.
Choosing the neighborhood where you will live provides an important illustration of this principle. In real estate there is a common dictum that one should not have the best house on the block, as the price you could sell it for will be brought down by the average value of the homes around you. While this may be good advice for maximizing the resale value of your home, it is not good advice for maximizing your happiness.
If you want to be happier, you are likely to do better buying the nicest house on the block, in a neighborhood at or just below your means, rather than the smallest in a neighborhood above your means. If you are a Buick-driver living amongst Chevrolet- and Toyota-drivers, you will likely feel successful and happy with your car and your financial status. But if you live in a neighborhood of Mercedes- and BMW-drivers, your Buick will suffer by contrast and you may suffer from the comparison.
Today I went on a bike ride. There were strong winds, over 20 miles per hour. But at least it wasn’t raining.
I had a great ride.