What is everyone else up to?

Comparing and contrasting is both a survival skill and a killer. As a survival skill, nothing beats out our ancestors’ ability to discern what was yummy from what was going to kill them. This is some pretty high-stakes trial and error going on. Still, as we’ve evolved from hunters and gatherers of food and shelter to hunters and gatherers of “stuff”, we seem to have taken a life skill and turned it on its philosophical noggin to become a competitive sport.

First, there’s that whole parental compare/contrast gig: “Oh, yeah, Bob has been performing differential equations in his head since he was four. You mean Mark doesn’t?” Or, “Oh, that’s … sweet how Paul color-coordinated his Leggos. Do you think he needs an evaluation?” Moving on, Mark might be the ‘smart’ one, Paul the ‘good looking’ one, and David the ‘kind’ one, but in the act of assigning those roles, have we not inadvertently stuck the people into categories that don’t belong? What happens when David is kind and intelligent, but Mark is already the smart one, so Fred can only be kind? What if, oh my goodness, in a family of labels, Fred goes label free? I can assure you that Fred will be aware of this lack of moniker, even as he might secretly like floating invisibly through that labeling dynamic.

We are a social species and a competitive one, which is all fine and spiffy, up until we evaluate ourselves based on those comparisons. It would be great if, as Garrison Keiller wrote in Lake Wobegon, everyone was above average, but it’s not going to happen — well, unless we change the definition of average. In a land of happy statisticians when it behooves us to be so, data – regardless of subject matter – has a mean, an average. Some are above the mean, and some below. Some are too busy living their lives to care what the mean means (I had to), and I celebrate them.

Extending this compare/contrast gig to our sociability, we spend an inordinate amount of time comparing our own activities and preferences to those of others, paying no attention, it would seem, to whether our definitions of ‘fun’ or ‘happy’ match up. There is now such a thing as a “Facebook effect,” which is a phenomenon scientists have studied suggesting that the more time people spend trolling through their social media, the less happy they are. I do not pick on Facebook; I just Googled studies on the subject and Facebook was the social site mentioned most often. Still, this is pretty interesting. We already compare ourselves to ideals of beauty/handsomeness, intelligence, money, possessions – and now we have to compare ourselves to how social OTHER people are? Stop the ride, I want off.

I admit to a certain tendency to think the rest of the world is having way more fun than I do, but that’s because my kind of fun doesn’t involve a whole lot of noise (unless it’s a concert. Then I’m way in). When I see Facebook posts of the people I genuinely like out and about engaging in activities that are ‘fun’ to them, I admit to a certain pang of what I guess is jealousy, but is probably more an acknowledgement that, while they’re out there doing these activities of happiness, I am secretly very happy to relax at home. I am the poster person of an ambivert, an introvert who really likes people and loves to spend time with them in small groups, for a limited amount of time. I have, however, noticed my ability to self-evaluate based on what everyone else is up to. This is silly because I just typed that I most enjoy being home.

In the interest of social science and self-development, I am going to pay attention to this “other people” tendency. I am going to spend the next week keeping a journal of how often I compare myself to others, either positively or negatively. I like to think I live in an Alwaysliz bubble of tolerance for others, but I’m not the most tolerant person of myself. I’m bugged by the feeling that I ought to be doing “something” better, but what that thing is eludes me. I, like many others, feel like an average daisy in a field of brilliantly-colored poppies and calla lilies. I happen to like daisies, so I don’t usually mind, except for the times that I do. To be human is to be fraught with contradictions, and this, I hope, will be a good exercise in acknowledging the glass-half-fullness of my days. Pick up your notebook and join me if you like, not as a compare/contrast, but as an intersection of who you are and what you like most about yourself.

 

* I used generic male names throughout this musing, not out of gender specificity, but out of gender neutrality, much in the same way that all the officers on the Starship Enterprise are addressed as ‘sir’.

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