I am an avid reader of your column and have realized a pattern in myself that I am less than proud of. I am in my early 30s, and my partner is in her late 20s. We do well for ourselves, we travel, we aren’t struggling. I own a nice home in a town a few hours away that I rent out because I recently moved to the city.
We are renting in the city now to save money. We have a roommate, and I feel that some friends judge us for this. Our friends are successful and all around our age. They are building extravagant homes, making what I believe to be more money than us, and I can help but be green with envy and always comparing what they have to what we don’t.
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I hate that my friends still get help from their parents and were born into money. They have no student-loan debt, one friend is a lawyer and her parents paid for that degree. One couple got their land for their home paid off by their family. I have had to work hard for everything I have in life, as well as my partner, and it’s just hard seeing them get ahead while we feel like we’re stagnant.
I want to be happy for them and stop comparing. How can I do this?
Your feelings about your friends are as real as your belief that they’re judging you for having a lodger. They are as real as you want them to be. While you’re thinking about your own relatively modest circumstances, I’m willing to guess that your lodger is the last thing on their minds. On an intellectual level, you know that this has zero to do with how you feel about your friends: You clearly wish them well. Nor does it have anything to do with how they feel about you: I bet they admire you for reasons you have never considered. This has everything to do with how you feel about yourself. I can’t answer why you feel the way you do, but this Green Eyed Monster likely lies somewhere in your past.
Regaining perspective on your life and your finances is sometimes a more difficult task than it sounds. How we choose to view our own circumstances — which are pretty good, as it happens — depends on what direction we choose to look and/or how far we are willing to pull back. We all belong to infinitesimally small social groups: our family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, school friends, college alumni, boldfaced names and, for old time’s sake, let’s throw in Robin Leach’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” too. The list, of course, goes on. Just don’t mention Norman Pruitt in No. 3. Where did the hell did he get the money for a Tesla Model X P100D? Who does he think he is?
Each one of these groups can make us feel “high status” or “low status.” That’s an exercise I learned as a kid in drama school. We’d each take turns being the snooty shopkeeper and nervous customer. But this scenario plays out in real life, too. Here’s the weird part: We can read about Hollywood actors or people who have valiant survived some terrible calamity, and feel curiously numb. Movie stars may have a $20 million Beverly Hills home, but they make up a constellation of Greek gods, right? We are merely orbiting their firmament. Why on earth would we feel wanton? And people who earn less in a month than some Americans do in an hour ? They’re a world away, aren’t they?
The more we have, the more we feel like we don’t have enough. And we’re all chasing something. That’s why they call it a rat race. Rats are not the most delicate of creatures, but they sure know how to run. “Our sense of an appropriate limit to anything — for example, to wealth and esteem — is never decided independently,” the philosopher Alain de Botton writes in his book “Status Anxiety,” which chops, dices and vacuum packs this age-old malady. “It is decided by comparing our condition with that of a reference group, with that of people we consider to be our equals. We cannot appreciate what we have in isolation, nor judged against the lives of our medieval forbearers.”
“If we have a pleasant home and comfortable job, however, but learn through ill-advised attendance at a school reunion that some of our old friends (there is no stronger reference group) are now living in houses larger than our own, bought on the proceeds of more enticing occupations, we are likely to return home nursing a violent sense of misfortune,” he writes. “It is the feeling that we might be something other than what we are — a feeling transmitted by the superior achievements of those we take to be our equals — that generates anxiety and resentment. If we are small and live among people who are all of own height, we will not be unduly troubled by questions of size.”
What do I do to right-size myself? When I lived in London in my 20s, I loved to visit the National Portrait Gallery on afternoons when I was feeling blue. I would sit and gaze at people who lived hundreds of years ago: peasants, royalty, aristocrats, farm workers or, perhaps, a portrait of a young man sitting wistfully in a window contemplating nothing but the day. Time is democratic and the most valuable commodity we have. More often than not, those hours made me feel grateful to have leisure time that a textile worker during the Industrial Revolution could only dream of. And it’s a brutal wake-up call to realize those feelings don’t always change along with our improved circumstances.
Call up one of your wealthy friends, and ask them how they’re doing. And then call up another friend who has far less than you. You may be surprised to discover that they have a lot in common.
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