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You CAN choose your relatives

I heard a brief but fascinating snatch of Radio 4’s Human Zoo yesterday discussing the way in which we’re programmed to judge comparatively - it’s not the absolute temperature we clock, only whether it’s warmer or colder than where we just were. We habituate to our current environment so that we’re ready to identify the next change which might have implications for our survival. It’s an evolutionary gift: we only have so much attention and processing capacity, and focusing on change allows us to use those limited resources effectively.

This principle has interesting implications today for how we assess our happiness or success: if we hang out with people wealthier than us, we are likely to feel dissatisfied with our income; if our friends have low expectations of life, we’ll feel even our most minor achievements are sizeable. 

Economists have created beautiful theories of how human behaviour is shaped by relative judgements - Richard Layard’s Happiness: Lessons from a New Science is still one of the best books in the area.  

On a personal level, however, we can dispense with the grand theories and focus simply on how to make this trick of our brains work for us. Too often the comparative habit creates envy and dissatisfaction, neither of which are enjoyable emotions, but both of which can be useful. Anyone who’s ever pulled out of the bag a head-to-head sprint finish at the end of a long race will know the power of a little healthy competition. 

I think there are three particularly useful applications: 

  1. Think carefully about WHERE you place yourself in this ladder of relative judgement. Jim Rohn famously stated ‘You are the average of the five people you spend most time with’; if you want to grow and develop personally and professionally, make sure you evaluate yourself in the context of someone or something a notch or two closer to whatever you consider to be success in your field. (Conversely, if you’re feeling inadequate, look down the ladder for reassurance: perhaps to yourself six months ago.)
  2. Remember that HOW you judge a situation is not an absolute truth about that situation: it’s entirely conditioned by your frame of reference. If you don’t like your emotional response, and you can’t change the situation itself, look at changing your frame of reference, or at least becoming more aware of it. (My mother always used to confront me with the poor starving children of the world when I turned my nose up at food: it didn’t cut much ice with six-year-old me, but now I get it.)
  3. Take time occasionally to look afresh at your life and consider to WHAT (or indeed to WHOM) you’ve become so habituated that you don’t even notice it any more. Just as we stop noticing a bad smell after a few minutes, we learn to ignore the minor irritations that once drove us nuts. Imagine you were explaining your business processes or domestic arrangements to someone else - what would they challenge, and do you have a good answer? Often such issues don’t take much fixing, but the results can be startling.

So the next time you’re tempted to say something’s ‘absolutely awful,’ remind yourself there are no absolutes, and choose your relatives, as well as your friends, wisely. 

Tags: happiness | coaching

This entry was posted on 25 June 2014 at 17:18 and is filed under business coaching. You can leave a response here.

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