The email pinged into Cara’s inbox just as she was dashing out of the office for yet another gruelling meeting. It was from an old friend she’d met up with at a school reunion the previous weekend. “We hadn’t seen each other for about 20 years, and we’d spent the whole evening catching up,” she recalls.
Now a successful financial analyst living on Dubai’s The Palm, Cara, 40, enjoys a lifestyle many would envy – not least, it seems, her old friend. “In her email, Helen said she’d spent the week comparing the way our lives had evolved so differently,” Cara explains. “She’d married her childhood sweetheart, went on to have three children, and still lives in the neighbourhood where she grew up. She felt that, in comparison to me, her life was terribly mundane, and she envied the exciting career I have.”
Cara readily admits that she has always been ambitious, and reaps the benefits of her success – but it has come at a price. “I work such long hours that I don’t really have a social life – let alone a love life – and at weekends I’m usually dealing with the overspill from work… it’s sometimes really lonely,” she says. “The irony is that I’d spent the week really envying Helen’s uncomplicated life – she’s surrounded by a loving family, has a beautiful home, and is happily married to a great guy.”
Most of us will admit that at times we look at another person’s circumstances and believe that in some way or another, they’ve got a better deal – whether it’s
their lifestyle, prosperity, career, or relationship.
There’s nothing new about this feeling, either. The Roman poet Ovid (43BC-AD17) wrote, “The harvest is always richer in another man’s field,” while an ancient Japanese proverb literally translates as referring to a belief that contentment would be achieved if only one’s circumstances were different.
“Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting to aspire to be more than we are – and being influenced by others’ achievements can be a terrific driving force, provided this is tempered with reality,” says Dr Tara Wyne, a clinical psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia in Dubai.
“Such examples should inspire us to grow – but if it ends up being no more than an ‘I got that, I did that’ list, simply to emulate another’s lifestyle, it becomes a hollow exercise,” says Dr Wyne.
Undoubtedly, today’s success-driven society makes it harder to maintain a sense of perspective. Just a few generations ago, most people’s experiences and ambitions didn’t stretch so far, making it easier, perhaps, to accept life’s perimeters. Nowadays, though, opportunities, along with choices, are virtually guaranteed.
“We’re told the world is our oyster, which, while exciting, can also leave us restless and dissatisfied,” says Dr Wyne. “Whatever we achieve, we still wonder what else is out there, so we seek something, possibly get it, but are then left wanting the next thing. It’s a vicious circle that leaves us vulnerable and dissatisfied.”
UK-based psychologist Sue Firth agrees, but points out another important factor in the prevalent ‘grass is always greener’ syndrome. “We’ve established a celebrity-obsessed culture and constantly see people – often without notable talent – who have fast-tracked their way to fame and fortune,” she says. “This has not only challenged the ‘work hard if you want to succeed’ ethic, but being exposed to their seemingly perfect lifestyles and idyllic relationships can leave us feeling as if our own are somehow lacking. It’s a completely distorted view of reality.”
The root of all evil?
Not surprisingly, one of the most fundamental ‘if only…’ preoccupations today is about money. “There is an unhealthy obsession with the ‘bigger, better, wealthier’ ideals, but it’s clear that even the richest in society don’t necessarily enjoy what they have,” says Dr Wyne. “How many times do we read of seemingly successful people struggling in some way, or falling from grace in a spectacular fashion?”
Indeed, studies consistently show that happiness levels do not continue to rise with increased wealth.
“If you put yourself under pressure to make more and more money – convinced it will improve life substantially – everything quickly loses balance,” says Sue. “For instance, working all hours to become wealthier will have an impact on your most cherished relationships because they will be neglected rather than enriched. Of course, it’s important to feel financially secure, but beyond that having money isn’t going to provide all the answers.”
So how do we find contentment on our own side of the fence – or at least maintain a sense of perspective? It’s actually a simple message that spiritual guides and psychologists alike agree on, namely, the only way forward is to look at the life you have and deal with what’s there.
Buddhism, for instance, teaches that the secret to happiness is to learn to want what you have and not want what you don’t. Renowned psychoanalyst Melanie Klein (1882-1960) called this the ‘acceptance of reality’ and saw it as the touchstone for peace of mind, contentment and inner security.
The premise holds true today – psychologists readily agree much of their work involves helping patients to readjust their thoughts to the life they have – rather than wanting another one completely. “Ask yourself if you’re really mindful of what you already have in your own life, and connect with what is important within it. Once you can do that, you will stop feeling detached and start to appreciate its value, rather than always wanting something more,” urges Dr Wyne.
Perhaps, too, it’s worth considering the wise words of author Robert Fulghum who stated unequivocally that the grass is not always greener: “Fences have nothing to do with it. The grass is greenest where it is watered. When crossing over fences, carry water with you and tend the grass wherever you may be.”