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Beware of Living Vicariously Through Other People's Lives

Beware this cautionary tale:

I know someone whose family didn’t travel often when he was a kid, but when they did, they always did it within their budgetary means and got excellent values for where they stayed, where they ate, the activities they did, etc. I think that this is great and very admirable, because no one needs to go into debt for a vacation. There are plenty of ways to enjoy going somewhere that can be wonderful and exciting and restorative that don’t break that bank.

However, whenever this family went away, they made a point of visiting other, more expensive hotels and resorts, to watch the people staying in them have a great time.

Yes, I’m serious. As part of this family’s excursions they would make the time to go to swanky hotels, tour around the opulent lobbies and indoor waterparks, and then just stand there and observe the “luckier” people having fun and living out the vacation that I can only assume the family wished they could be having instead.

So what did this do? It made whatever they were doing themselves pale by comparison in a big way. There was less focusing on the facts that 1. They actually had the means and the time to go on a vacation at all, 2. That they were getting to spend time together as a family, 3. That where they were (usually someplace warm and sunny during the winter) was beautiful and special delightful, regardless of where they were staying.

To this day I have no idea why they did this on every vacation they went on. I actually had the opportunity to travel with them once as a teenager, and when we all piled in the car to go to the newly built, all-inclusive resort hotel with the multiple pools and personal concierge service that was more than 30 minutes away I wondered to myself “What exactly are we doing? Why are we spending our time watching other people have fun?”

It’s honestly a mystery to me why anyone would go and do something or watch something that is just about guaranteed to make them feel jealousy or envy or disappointed with their own good fortune, which now looks “not as good” when compared with something seemingly better.

This can be very dangerous to our happiness. Social media sites are flooded with the highlight reels of people’s lives, and it is human nature to see someone’s carefully curated and photoshopped version of their life and feel that it is better than our own. It is very easy to fall into the trap of “Oh they are so lucky,” or “How come everything good always happens to them and not me?” which makes us completely discount all of the good things that are actually going on in our lives.

Even worse is when we allow other people’s successes to curtail our own aspirations. Let’s say for example that you’ve always wanted to write a book about a boy wizard and his friends at a wizarding school. Or about the best way to tidy up a cluttered house. Or about your personal post-divorce journey in a foreign country. You might see that these ideas have already been turned into (rather successful) books, tv shows, and films, and so you might think to yourself, “Well why should I even bother with my goals and dreams, they have already been done.” To that I would answer 2 things:

Who cares? The point of making art and creating something that comes out of you is the creating of it. It doesn’t matter if your pottery ends up in a museum or your music ends up on the radio or your book ends up on the NY Times best seller list. What matters is that you are doing what you love, you are spending your time doing what makes you happy, and you are fulfilling one of your purposes here on earth. What can possibly be more important than that?

Even though these things have been “done” before, they weren’t done with your personal spin on it. They weren’t presented according to your point of view and with your own distinctive style and flair. They say that there are only 3 actual story plots but millions of different ways to tell them, which is why bookstores and movie theaters have endless supplies of content for people to enjoy and to learn from.

The art of choosing happiness lies in doing what makes US happy on a daily basis, regardless of what anyone else thinks and no matter how anyone else is spending their own time. Would my friend’s family have had more fun on their vacations had they been staying at a fancy hotel with every amenity known to man? Maybe. But they certainly would have had a lot more fun on those vacations if they hadn’t been comparing their own “meager” experiences to the “better” ones of others.

I’ve also seen parents who force their own childhood aspirations onto their children. I knew a mother who had always loved horses but was never able to afford riding lessons sign her daughters up year after year for horse camp and trail rides and lessons and competitions, until finally they told her they would rather pursue their own, different interests. I’ve seen a few stage mothers who mercilessly dragged their kids from audition to audition, dressing them up like dolls and filling their schedules with music and dance classes because their own dreams of being a child star had never materialized.

What I can’t understand about these scenarios is why these parents didn’t simply take up these pursuits in their adulthood? When they finally had the time and the money to do them? How much more would they have meant to them as adults, after longing to do them for decades, rather than when they were kids, when desires can be fleeting and lots of different activities are meant to be tried out for a while and then discarded in favor of new passions and inspirations?

Do not allow yourself to get sucked into living vicariously. Just because someone else has done something that you want to do does not mean that it’s not worthy of you doing it too. Just because something eluded you as a child does not mean that it is gone from your life forever. Just because you don’t have the money to do the things you want to do exactly as you want to do them does not mean that they are off limits to you altogether, it just might mean that you may have to look at it a different way or think creatively about how to accomplish it.

Your life is YOURS to live, no one else’s. Choose to live it on your own terms, without comparison, without envy, and with as much true happiness as possible.

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