A reader emails that her father always cautioned her that “the grass is always greener,” i.e., that she should keep searching for something better than what she already has. She asks me if an endless quest for that “something better” could actually keep her from enjoying what she possesses right now.
“The grass is always greener” is a fallacy. The error isn’t in wanting something better if something better is available. The error comes from NOT knowing what you want, but believing that whatever it is will be better if/when you find it. It’s placing the psychological cart before the horse.
A good example is the person in a relationship who wants something different, but doesn’t know why. Or the person who feels he’s in the wrong career but can’t come up with an alternative. Neither compares to the healthy person who may not be happy with what he has, but definitely knows what he wants, and why.
A lot of this “grass is greener” stuff stems from low self-confidence. I’ve discovered that a surprising number of people know that they should choose what they want, but can’t figure out how to do it. The all-American values of freedom and opportunity become emotional burdens for those who want the good life but don’t know how to make choices.
Some people tell me that no matter what they accomplish, it will never be good enough. When I ask them what “good enough” is, they can’t tell me. That sort of impossible perfectionism can lead to chronic dissatisfaction with a relationship, a career, or any decision. If this attitude could talk, it might say, “I ordered the steak. I liked it a lot, but I’m worried that the chicken might have been better.” A healthy person would say, “Wow, the steak was wonderful. And when I go back, I’ll try the chicken.”
A man crippled by angst once told me, “No matter what I choose, I feel like there was another choice I could have made that might have been better.” Bingo! If you follow that all the way to its conclusion, you end up with a sense of futility. Many allow it to burden their enjoyment of life with unnecessary anxieties and doubts. The solution? Be aware of your feelings so you can be aware of (and change) inaccuracies in those feelings. We feel what we think, so we can change our feelings by changing our thinking.
The grass is green in a lot of places. In order to feel like you missed an opportunity, you first must have had a number of choices. You can then deal with the alternatives in one of two ways. You can think, “No matter what I choose, I’m going to miss out on something that might have been better.” Oops…there it is again! Or, you can look at it this way: “They’re all good choices. I have to pick one, but I know it will be good because they’re all good.” This leads to serenity. How you feel is determined by how you think. Think better, feel better.
We live in an age of choices. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology cited a study conducted at a shopping mall. Shoppers were asked how much decision-making they had done that day. Then they were given simple arithmetic problems to solve. The more the subjects had agonized over choices made during the day, the worse they performed on the math problems. Many people become overwhelmed by their choices, and they lack the confidence to tell themselves they can indeed make a good decision. Instead of seeing the error as a learning opportunity, they jumped to the conclusion that it was catastrophe. Most things aren’t. Like your computer, there are lots of “undo” buttons in life.
Recognize and accept choices, and then develop confidence in your ability to act on them. Sure, the grass might be a little greener someplace else, but you can still be at peace where you are.