Happy- Compared To What?

By Dr. Ron Cruickshank, Golf Mind Coach & GGA Director, Canada

Many years ago I was doing some business coaching with a client that was, by all external factors, very successful. He owned a very large company that was doing well, and had a good relationship with his wife and three teenage kids and was in good health. He owned a beautiful home, drove expensive cars and was able to determine his own schedule to a great degree. Looked like a pretty nice life when looking at from outside.

The problem was: he was miserable. He felt his life wasn’t a success and in fact he was constantly despondent and depressed because he woke up every morning and felt himself a failure. How could this be.

History is full of people that achieved great success and still felt empty and unfulfilled. This is common in highly goal-oriented people that think their happiness is largely based on their ability to achieve. When they reach their goals they find an empty place, because reaching the goal was not what made them happy. Rather, it was the journey and the application of their competencies that they truly enjoyed. Not realizing this about themselves, these achievers feel depressed until they establish another challenging goal.  Sometimes they never break out of this mental rut, because they get stuck in their own beliefs about what constitutes happiness and never challenge their own thinking.

However, this didn’t seem to be the issue with my client. He still had challenging goals and was engaged in solving complex business problems on a daily basis. We began to dig into his model of the world to understand the source of his unhappiness. For him, this was a serious examination as his pain was palpable and made more intense by the fact that he couldn’t understand why he felt so miserable because even by his own observations, his life was good. This exacerbated his sense of alienation and he heaped guilt on top of his generalized unhappy state. He was in the common vernacular, a mess.

The breakthrough insight as to the source of his unhappiness came in our second meeting. He pulled a checkbook out of his back pocket (yes, this was a few years ago when people still carried checkbooks around), and in all seriousness said. “I only have three and a half million dollars in my checkbook.” He was shaking his head at the time and seemed on the verge of tears.

In the back of my mind I must admit it occurred to me that perhaps I wasn’t charging this guy nearly enough. After putting that thought aside (perhaps slowly), I responded that this seemed a pretty big number and compared to most in the world this was outstanding.

He immediately came back with his retort through pursed lips. “Yes, it OK, but my brother has a lot more.”

Ah, we now had the beginning of understanding. It rapidly became apparent that his sense of unhappiness was rooted in a fundamental problem. He was constantly, and up to that point unconsciously, comparing his success and progress in business and life to his older brother. It was now revealed that his brother had a company that was even bigger and more successful than his.

We quickly ruled out plain old sibling jealousy. He actually didn’t resent his brother’s success; in fact, he greatly admired it. He had though, over the years, fallen into the trap of constantly comparing his own rate of success to his brothers and he continually felt he didn’t live up because his brother’s success had been meteoric while his own had been more steady and methodical.  He was his own victim because his criterion for measuring himself was flawed; he was comparing himself to others.

The insight within this story is to understand that an important part of our happiness and motivation equation is to understand that it is most meaningful to compare our success and progress to ourselves, not to others. Any other comparison can only lead to false assumptions, unrealistic expectations or disappointment. It is a classic sign of under developed emotional maturity when our primary mode of comparison is primarily others rather than ourselves.

We all know the classic teenage retort when teenagers are told ‘no’ to a request made of their parents. “But Dad, all the other kids are allowed to “X”.   To which we respond reliably. “Well, if all the other kids jumped off a building would you?”

The truth is they probably would. The reason is because at that stage of maturity their primary reference group is their peers, as they’ve moved beyond thinking of you (the parent) as infallible and the final arbiter of good reason. They now look further externally, to their peers, for comparison and validation. The unfortunate truth is, many people never get beyond this stage and are destined to utilize these criteria to determine their self-satisfaction and happiness for the rest of their lives.

There is a classic old joke that represents the emergence from this stuck perspective to a more mature one. As the story goes, a 24 year old is overheard to say. “Boy, my parents were dumb as stumps till I got to be about 21, and then I was amazed at how much they learned in just three years.”

If you recognize yourself that your unhappiness or dissatisfaction in a situation is because of the context of your comparisons, I’d offer a simple and elegant question that is designed to unpack the implications of useless comparisons.  In my experience, it is one of the greatest questions to have in your arsenal of responses; and that is to simply ask. “Compared to what or who?”

Let me give you a couple of golf related examples we have all heard:

  • My short game is awful.                Q – Compared to whom?  Phil?
  • I am not a good golfer.                  Q – Compared to whom?  Tiger?
  • It’s too much work to get better     Q – You’ve got it, compared to what? Chess?

A positive of the golf handicap system is that you can quantitatively and easily compare your progress to yourself, which is the only real gauge of achievement.  Your handicap, scores or even your stats like FIR, GIR and Putts can give you a great way to compare your self with yourself and not others.  If the number isn’t improving or staying the same, then you know that action is called for.

In competition, you are compelled to compare your scores with others, as that is the nature of competitive games. However, at the end of the day it is still beneficial to compare your performance to your previous performances, not just to the low scorer of the day. If your happiness is based on that, then you are doomed to have a lot of disappointing days on the golf course.

Remember the magic question. Compared to who or what!

About the Author: Dr. Ron Cruickshank recently opened the GGA – Moe Norman Golf School as part of our expansion program into Canada. We are headquartered at the Royal Ashburn Golf Club in Whitby Ontario, a top 50 Canadian Course. If you are serious about owning your golf swing you can reach him at 647-892-4653.