On Big Fish, Small Ponds, and Gaugin

by F.

When I raced at the velodrome, many of my teammates were “champions” of one sort or another. Either they were former champions—for instance, junior national time trial champion—or current champions—for instance, 750-meter world time-trial champion in the 50-55 age group. I was even a “champion:” I won a state points race championship for 30+ year-olds.

In other contexts, certainly I and many of these other guys would have been also-rans. We all know that feeling of moving from being a big fish in a small pond to being a big fish in an even bigger pond. Graduate school is like that for some, law school for others: the first time you are competing with other smart people. It’s like a beauty pageant: you may be Miss Eugene Oregon, and very beautiful, but then you compete for Miss World, and however beautiful you are in absolute terms, there can be only one number one.

And this can be painful. This is why some psychologists say that we should compare ourselves “down” rather than up. The Dalai Lama also says this: when you are pained by thinking about what you don’t have, compare yourself to those who have less. Sometimes this works; sometimes not. It certainly takes a lot of retraining of the mind to make this kind of comparing a habit. But like any skill, it can be learned and is worth the effort, I think.

What are the policy implications of this putative fact about human psychology? Some people argue that a society is better off when everyone is at about the same material level. Inequality leads to comparison leads to feeling bad. John Cassidy had a piece in The New Yorker in which he argued that, ‘If poverty is a relative phenomenon, what needs monitoring is how poor families make out compared with everybody else, not their absolute living standards.’

Absolute prosperity has been rising for quite a while, but in the United States, differences in prosperity have increased. Some suggest this is why Danes, Swedes and Cost Ricans are happier than people in the US, based on self-reports: when these folks look across the street at their neighbor, they see someone in a pretty good position—about the same position they are in. So they conclude, “Life’s good. I’m no worse off than my neighbor.”

Should we distribute wealth to decrease inequality, so people will be happier? I don’t know. Sounds pretty radical, so I kind of think, “No.” But what do those on the other side of this debate say? Nothing much very interesting. For instance, there’s an article in Policy that concludes:

We are not destined to want fancier cars, bigger houses, and more upscale outfits, nor are we helpless to feel diminished by those who out-consume us. We can opt out by opting in to competing narratives about the composition of a good life. And we do it all the time. We can, like Gauguin, quit law and family to paint naked natives in Tahiti. Or, better, we can move the family to a quieter place where houses are cheap and schools are good. (‘Is this heaven?’ ‘No, Iowa.’) If we are aggrieved by the rigours of the rat race, the answer is not the clumsy guidance of a paternal state. The answer is simply to stop being a rat.

This prescription reduces to “Find a small pond and stay in it,” it seems to me. This can certainly work, but like most prescriptions that assume people will retrain themselves, it’s an empirical question whether people will do what’s necessary to feel better.

Even if we did retrain ourselves to find small ponds in which to wallow, Is this the better way to go? I’m not sure. Could we have a booming economy if we all became Gaugins? I doubt it: some work isn’t fun but has to be done, and sometimes we do it merely because we want to beat our best friend, get a bigger car, a richer husband, or a wife with larger boobs. Motivation is not pretty much of the time, yet the results can overall be good.

But maybe that doesn’t matter any more. Maybe the world should be Jamaica. Maybe we’ve reached an absolute level of prosperity where it shouldn’t matter. Unfortunately, I tend to think people will always find differences to bitch about. Human misery tends to break out even in the happiest places. But then I’ve only lived in the United States, which is fairly far down on the list of happiest countries.

There’s a wonderful scene in the movie About Schmidt where Schimdt arrives at the childhood home of his daughter’s fiance. In the fiance’s old room, Schmidt looks around at various pieces of teenage memorabilia—Van Halen posters, records, and on one wall, ribbons. Schmidt examines the ribbons, which say things like “Honorable Mention” and “Participant.” Schmidt turns toward the camera and his face says it all: this guy my daughter is marrying is a fucking loser.

Does it matter? Not to the fiance, who seems quite happy. But to Schmidt, he is a loser. Schmidt is a relatively unhappy man, though he has been fairly successful in conventional terms. One of the ideas the movie plays with is, What does it take to be happy? Is a blissful loser better off than an unhappy success? The movie doesn’t come down hard one way or the other, and so tends to unfurl in the mind for some time—one reason it’s a good movie.

There are probably individual dispositions toward being either more like the fiance or more like Schmidt. Some of us always want more, better, faster, perhaps because we were breast fed on a regular schedule. (Truly: I saw a study that suggested that was a contributing factor to being “achievement oriented”). Others are content to watch The Partridge Family reruns and smoke pot all day. Which is better? Neither. It’s all about taste. But for some of us, no amount of retraining would put us into the other camp, it seems to me. Or: the cost of retraining would be so high that it would outweigh any benefit from the retraining. While we can retrain ourselves, there are constraints: I can’t be John Von Neumann or Yo-Yo Ma. I could probably be Gaugin, though.