by Marci Goldberg
If you missed the post for Ch. 1, you can read it here.
Thank you Marci!. Here we go:
What a meaty Chapter Two Scott Sonenshein delivers in The Grass Is Always Greener, as he explicates four distinct elements of chasing behavior with illustrative and cautionary real-world studies and examples. Ironically, I experienced the chapter itself as perhaps an example of the very pitfalls of overabundance Sonenshein warns us to avoid. In sharp contrast to the majority of self-help, psychology, and philosophy books that tend toward the annoyingly repetitive, the chapter hardly spares readers a moment to process a concept, integrate Sonenshein’s examples, and consider the relevance of these ideas to one’s own life before charging ahead to the next idea. At each turn, I found myself so flooded with further thoughts and questions from the readings as well as examples from my own life, that I felt the author himself underutilized his own work and missed opportunities for greater depth and further exploration. Did anyone else find themselves moving forward before they’d fully explored a particular idea or experience or find their brain swirling with unresolved thoughts? Hopefully, in my discussion below, I can focus on a single idea rather than muddying the waters with everything that came up for me.
I found particularly useful Ted Steinberg’s tidbit at chapter’s end about the actual physical “illusion” of greener grass depending upon the angle from which we view someone’s lawn. Inevitably when we make social comparisons, the angle from which we view someone else’s lot in life can enhance its apparent attractiveness--the public face of someone’s marriage, the carefully curated existence lived on Facebook, a model’s airbrushed gorgeousness in a magazine. But as my mother ingrained in me since childhood, “appreciate your own life because you never know what goes on behind closed doors.” Clearly, in making social comparisons between ourselves and others, perspective is everything. Even more compelling, though, is the role perspective plays in determining what qualities even merit our analytical efforts at comparison in the first place.
Surviving my own wonderfully tumultuous life, I’ve come to understand how fundamentally perspective and the lens with which we view the world shapes the way we experience life. Bombarded in every moment with infinite information, all but the most salient data escape our perception. What information matters to us varies, as does how much we care about the impact we have on others or our awareness about the way the world perceives us. Each surviving bit of input wends its way through our unique wisdom, belief system, personal history, and coping strategies before we figure out what to do with this highly processed fact.
Considering the example of the wasteful Northern California homeowners competitively watering their lush lawns to display superior wealth, I thought about this idea of perspective and choice as it relates to the concept of social comparison. While the homeowners’ ability to maintain a green lawn in the face of drought restrictions elevated perceived status within their own privileged enclave, they remained oblivious to the negative judgement of others impacted by the water shortages and concerned for the environment. Beyond Sonenshein’s allowance that upward social comparisons can provide a modicum of healthy motivation to strive for excellence, I wondered whether the measures of social comparison we make need be undesirable at all, as the theory of chasing would imply. Specifically, the value placed on displaying one’s wealth in the watering example is not universally shared. Such behavior would have been scorned as shameful, greedy, and excessively selfish by the equally wealthy, environmentally green Hollywood and Los Angeles elite. In sharp contrast, these eco-minded individuals appear to evaluate relative status based on one’s ability to conserve scarce resources or the size of one’s global footprint. Putting aside any cynical thoughts about a celebrity’s underlying motivations, the difference driving behavior between these communities seems to be one of values.
So when Festinger refers to our human need to “measure up” and “know where we stand,” I find myself wondering how much choice we have in setting our personal values that serve as benchmarks for upward social comparison. Though our instincts might drive us to keep up with the Jones’ and acquire the newest, best, and most impressive of material stuffage, some hard self-reflection will often uncover a greater passion toward leading a life based on simplicity, family, service, creative fulfillment, social action, fitness, conservation, etc. How might our lives be different if we tuned in to the quality we valued most? Can we realistically quash our initial impulses and make a mental shift, carefully considering the people we want to be and the lives we want to lead, to establish our own personal values against which we choose to compete and be evaluated?
In my experience, the answer is yes. I believe we lead better and more meaningful lives when we lead them with conscious thought to the choices we make and the ideals we live by. There was a time in my life, pre-divorce, when I passively allowed life to happen to me, without a thought to my own needs, happiness or fulfillment. Money flowed in abundance, and we rapidly moved up the ladder and into the positions and lifestyles that came next. Life so easily gets ahead of us when it appears to be going smoothly. Though living on a drastically reduced income, I now find myself exponentially happier. The destruction of my old life forced me to make considered choices moving forward about where to live, how to spend my time, the work I wanted to do, the people I cared to hang out with, etc. I abandoned traditional law to become a mediator, indulged myself in art and creativity, and surrounded myself with kind, generous, and loving people. As my former peers collected luxuries, I collected memories and adventures. Choosing what to value and go after in my own life, I try to evaluate my progress and standing based on new measures that have worth in my current life. I can’t say I never feel the occasional jealous pang at seeing someone’s cool new toy, admiring their fabulous beach house, or hearing about their front row seats at Hamiliton. At the same time, I feel a certain secret internal smugness measuring the personal kind of abundance I’ve created in my new and improved life.
Up Next: Chapter 3, spearheaded by Kelly Alblinger