Monday, December 2, 2019

Does FIRE Make for Healthy Comparisons?

Does FIRE Make for Healthy Comparisons?
My good friends recommended a great podcast recently, Dr. Laurie Santos' The Happiness Lab. The show is based on Santos' immensely popular class on positive psychology at Yale, "The Science of Well-Being", which at one point had over a quarter of the students at Yale enrolled, with hundreds of thousands more enrolled online for free through Coursera.

The podcast tackles the myths of what we think will make us happy (but doesn't), while also outlining the science of what actually makes us happy (even though it's not often what we think).

Research on positive psychology has long been one of my favorite subjects. In fact, the podcast's first guest, Sonja Lyubomirsky, was the subject of this blog's first series way back in 2013, looking at happiness, debt and how various aspects of personal finances impact how we feel.

My favorite episode from the first season has been "Silver Linings": looking at how reference points, the thing we compare ourselves to, can be a strong determinant of how happy we feel about our situation, regardless of how objectively good or bad it is.

The episode uses the data set of Olympic medal winners to illustrate the point. Santos tells the story of McKayla Maroney, who you likely know as much from her meme as you do from her second place finish at the London Olympics.

Does FIRE Make for Healthy Comparisons?

While Maroney's illustration of being dissatisfied with second place is just fantastic in its own right, perhaps it's not all that surprising. Of course someone working for years to earn a gold medal might not be terribly happy with coming up just short.

What is surprising is that bronze medal winners seem happier with their result, despite being further from the Olympian's shared goal of gold. Dr. Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University recorded the facial expressions of all medal winners from one Olympic games and then asked third parties to rank those expressions on a scale of one to ten, from agony to ecstasy. Gold medal winners had the highest scores but they were followed by bronze medalists; silver medal winners showed the worst reactions, even ranking closer to agony than to ecstasy. This study was backed up by another by Dr. David Matsumoto, which looked at all the facial muscle reactions of medal winners at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

In both cases, those earning the bronze seemed to be using all the other competitors as a reference point: the athletes coming in third looked at the vast field of competitors who didn't win anything, and felt happy to have at least earned a medal. The silver medal winners seem to have been using the gold medalists as their reference point: the one person in the entire world who performed better than they did at their craft. As such, they felt disappointment, despite just achieving an objectively incredible feat. From the podcast:
"These findings show that the imagined alternative, that of a gold medal, poisons the actual really awesome reality that silver medalists experience. They've just won an Olympic medal: that should be a thrill. But end up looking enviously at the one single solitary person on earth who beat them. But this experience isn't just a problem for Olympians. It's a human bias...that's deeply ingrained in all of us."
This potential downside of reference points has me wondering about the public sharing, the public comparisons, and maybe even a bit of the public competition, that happens in the personal finance space, especially the financial independence and early retirement niche.

When we share stories about couples retiring early, in their forties, thirties, or even their twenties, do our readers then use us FIRE folks as a reference point for their own financial achievements?

That is to say, when I share that I'm hitting financial independence and could opt to retire at a fairly young age, am I more likely to give readers the experience of a bronze medalist, someone who looks at their financial situation and feels gratitude for all they've accomplished so far?

Or am I more likely to give my readers the experience of a silver medalist: someone who looks at what we're doing, at our weird, outlier early retirement, and maybe not feel that great about what may, indeed, be a very accomplished and incredible financial journey in its own right?

I get the feeling it's a lot more likely I'm giving the average reader the silver medal experience. Which isn't very nice.

While working towards a financial independence and an early retirement is a good thing, I wonder whether my writing about it has been a net positive for people out there.

Is it mostly just a vanity project: something that I write about so I can feel good about myself, and maybe brag quite a bit to people on the internets and say, in not so many words, "Aren't I very good with money?"

The charitable view is that sharing our experiences actually helps people achieve things that they wouldn't otherwise. We don't come out of the womb knowing about financial independence, so we have to read about how to do it and see examples of people doing it before we can give it an honest go ourselves.

I like that idea: that this blog helps people do something similar. That is a nice way of thinking about it.

But I think the other side of that help is that our own story, our weird, atypical story that most people certainly can't replicate, along with probably helping inspire some positive financial steps, very likely is making a lot of people also feel a lot of negative emotions about their finances, too. My decisions to publicly share our income and our progress to financial independence and an optional retirement by forty are probably giving people a bad reference point for comparison.

I suspect this is true because I, too, feel myself making these sort of comparisons. I see people who have retired a few years earlier than I did and, you know, it doesn't feel great. I see people with much larger incomes and much higher retirement balances and that doesn't feel fantastic, either.

And yet here I am, joining in the same game, putting our story out there, and guaranteeing that a whole lot of other people will feel some bad stuff, too.

I don't know what the answer to any of this is. Maybe we should work towards financial independence but just keep quiet about it: just don't blog about it. Lots of people, normal people, do this all the time. I suspect that, in almost all ways, we bloggers and content creators are the niche, not the norm.

The rub is that I like writing. This blog is the one way that I put my English degree to use these days, and is the one project I've managed to stick with over the years. I sure would like to keep writing, without feeling like this outlet is good for me but bad for everyone else.

If there's a middle ground, maybe it's in finding ways to make readers feel good about themselves, instead of comparing themselves to me.

I mean, of course it is hard comparing yourself with me.

Does FIRE Make for Healthy Comparisons?

But you, dear reader, you, too, are amazing. I know it, not just because of your incredible taste in media, but also because there are many, many ways in which you're the medalist and I'm nowhere near the podium.

The problem with online comparisons is not only that they are worse than zero sum games; that for every 'winner' there are many, many losers. But with comparisons online, we end up comparing our reality to someone else's carefully curated narrative. That we end up feeling bad that our real situation doesn't quite match up to someone else's based-on-real-events fiction.

Finally, thankfully, there is someone who actually understands how best to combat the urges to compare ourselves to the 'gold medal' reference points around us: Michelle Kwan, the figure skater who famously came in second place in at the 1998 Winter Olympics, but avoided the outcome that befell so many other athletes finishing second.

Rather than comparing herself to other skaters, even just after getting second, Michelle Kwan focused on internal motivation. "I never put myself 'against' somebody. I didn't want to wish anybody falls or anything. I tend to kind of focus on myself, "Kwan notes. "I was not that kind of that competitor where it was like, 'I'm against this person.'"

In addition to other healthy habits, like negative visualization (imagining what sort of outcomes we'd have if not for all the good things that had occurred in our lives) and having a good example of a reference point in her older sister and fellow elite skater, Karen Kwan, Michelle's positive outlook seems to come from her focus on internal motivation. 

Her goal going in to the Olympics was, amazingly, not to actually win the gold medal. Rather, she just wanted to ensure she skated the best routine that she could. "I want to skate my best," Kwan said. "Before thinking about medals, before thinking about anything, I wanted to do my very own best and have no regrets. It really was an awakening. It's not about the result, it's about the journey."

In that way, she could feel like she accomplished her goal, regardless of the medal. She focused on her own performance, on doing the best that she could and her own journey: not how much further along on the path someone else might be at any moment. 

So that's going to be my goal, too. As I read through so many blog posts and articles, profiling the successes of people who are younger or more accomplished than me, I'm going to try to overcome the envy that can creep in. I'm going to try to recognize that the comparisons are all in my head: the competition between us is not real. There is no race, and no medals are given. 

And if my blog inspires some bad feelings for you, my readers, I hope you'll accept my apologies. I hope that each of us gets to a place where we can opt out of these competitions. Because the way to win this messed up game is to not play in the first place.

*Photo is from The U.S. Army at Flickr Creative Commons.

**Having trouble leaving comments? Blogger's comments require cookies from third parties, which your browser may block (especially if you use Safari). You can change your settings here:


  1. I have had some talks with my mentor about envy (particularly of friends but it's true of anyone). Our conclusion was that if you're feeling it, it's an internal issue. It has nothing to do with the person doing better than you, because in this life, there are always going to be a thousand people doing better, getting richer, being smarter. Always. No matter how hard you try or work, someone else can and may top your accomplishments. Even Olympians! Someone will come along and break your record. So the healthier thing to do is to be focused on yourself and how happy you are with your own deeds. Forget everything and everyone else, can you be proud of yourself? Then good.

    If I cannot be happy for you or Tanja or any other PF FIRE friend for achieving your goals, then how can I ask you to be happy for me when I achieve mine? But also twinges of envy are a good warning sign for me to fix myself. If I can't be happy for you when your happiness doesn't in any way take away from me, then clearly something is wrong internally and that's a good sign I should examine what's truly making me unhappy or unsteady. Keep writing, bud!

    1. "I have had some talks with my mentor about envy (particularly of friends but it's true of anyone). Our conclusion was that if you're feeling it, it's an internal issue."

      That's a great lesson, and I think it's rad that you have a mentor relationship. I need to seek one of those out.

      But more to the point, I am trying to focus on my own situation and not worry so much about the fact that others, thousands and millions of others, as you noted, are doing better.

      And thanks for the encouragement, friend. I definitely want to keep writing -- just hoping it's a net positive for others, as it is for me.

  2. I love this post.

    Basically, I don't feel inherently jealous of other people's money situations or how they spend their money. But I get seriously annoyed when people (a) add a side of judgment to their success ("I did it, and there's no reason you can't, too! And if you can't, it's because you're irresponsible!"), (b) assume everyone else in the PF community can do what they're doing (reach a certain savings rate, or max out their retirement accounts), (c) come across as super out of touch with what other people are dealing with, or (d) act snobby about their success. I'm a sensitive snowflake and can't stand that stuff. ;-)

    Again, great post - thank you for writing it.

    1. Thanks so much for those kinds words, friend!

      I, too, get really annoyed by those things, especially the trope of "I can do it and therefore anyone else can, too!" So much disrespect and narrow mindedness is wrapped up in that view. I wonder how homogeneous that person's community is to imagine literally everyone else can do whatever he has done?

      Like you, I'm also sensitive when people just aren't sensitive to the kind of shit others are going through. It costs us nothing to be kind and understanding when others aren't doing as well as we are at the moment.

  3. ahhhhhhgoooooooood wrote another long comment and something happened. In a nutshell, great post and I agree with 76k.

    1. I'm so sorry that my blog ate your comment, Tonya. I've been trying to fix this for months and apparently it's just something going on broadly with the blogger platform.

      I know it's frustrating, but really appreciate you reading and leaving a comment anyway. Thanks for stopping by, friend.

  4. This is a really great post with lots of things to think about! I recently started a blog myself so in particular I'm resonating with a lot of the same struggles you brought up - did I start a blog just to show off how good I'm doing, or to prove to myself I'm good enough? Because I think those are definitely the wrong reasons.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    1. Thanks for that kind comment, EfficiencyNerd, and congratulations on your new blog. It's nice to know that many of my thoughts are shared with others.

  5. As a fellow listener of The Happiness Lab, this is something I have thought a lot about. I feel like the reference points and my feelings towards them ebb and flow widely. Some times, I'll read yours or other FIRE blogs, and be a little down. I'll think about how far I still have to go. I'll think about that $100 I just spent on a ridiculously unnecessary dinner out. I'll think about all the things I have working against me in this. But sometimes, just as often as not, I come away from those same blogs feeling fired up. Remembering how good I've got it with our little family bringing in over six figures. Remembering often, as you put it last week, that life is short and sometimes it just doesn't matter.

    But recall, friend, competitive though we may all be, in this niche community, all boats rise when we achieve our goals. And every step along the journey is necessary.

    Lastly, as Revanche said above, it's a personal issue. You can't spend your time worrying about how your blog will make someone feel. You do it for you. You do it with good intention. If someone comes along and judges themselves against it poorly, that's on them. Now, there are some other blogs that seem to go out of there way to say "you're doing it wrong, and you're wrong, and you should feel bad about the bad thing you did". But not Mr. DBF - always measured and thoughtful. Your regular readers see that. So, please keep writing. :-)

    See you next week.

    1. Thanks, buddy, for that very thoughtful comment.

      I suppose the same article is bound to inspire good feelings and some bad ones. It's tricky to know what the net is with stuff like that.

      I'm not 100% sure that all boats rise based on the reference point article. Some boats rise, but as the typical silver medalist (& non medalists) show us, sometimes the achievements we publicly share cause some boats to sink a little, too.

      I get the idea of blogging just for me, and it's surely mostly for me; but I'd like to keep others in mind as well. I'm not sure I'd be able to keep up with it for so long if it was really just for my benefit.

  6. I am pretty new to the FIRE community, and I think I would feel a little down reading about everyone else's savings and retirements if I am only 23 making very little. Thankfully I am older and understand myself better now, and am also pretty financially secure. However, I think in order to FIRE you have to learn to be happy and content also? Otherwise, why FIRE and you decide have enough at a certain number, instead of earning more? And since I have basically RE, if I didn't learn to be content, I would just feel like I am underachieving and should be working harder instead.

    Anyway, I have listened to all the Happiness Lab podcasts and enjoyed it. I also listened to some of the lectures in her course. The funny thing is, if any of her students really took to her advice, they probably won't have made it into Yale?

    1. Congratulations on hitting an early retirement, Kathy, and thanks for stopping by.

      Totally agree that happiness & contentment are more important to learn about than financial independence.

      Not sure I totally agree about students of the happiness course not making it in to Yale, though. I don't think the advice would be detrimental to achievement, per se -- it might improve it.