I think it’s always interesting to take common sayings and concepts, and analysing them in-depth, and seeing what conclusions we can draw and lessons we can learn.
The idea that the “grass is always greener on other side of the fence” is a very common one in many parts of the world.
While it’s just a saying, there have been some disturbing cases where the principle behind the saying could even be labelled a “syndrome”, and can have extremely negative repercussions on people’s lives.
It’s essentially a transmuted version of “Keeping Up With The Joneses”, but played in your own head, without needing a perfect family living next door to you.
There are several different schools of thoughts regarding how we should approach the idea that someone always has it better, or that we should always strive to have more.
The Stoics, to one extreme, claim that this is a path towards discontentment, lack of joy, and generally a fairly lousy existence. I tend to agree.
A more modern school of thought, especially coming from America, is that we should always strive to achieve our dreams, no matter how grandiose. It’s that “go get ‘em” attitude. While this is great for the “winners”, they are, by the very nature of things, a minority, so I think most people don’t do well under this type of philosophy, but this is the dominant way of thinking in the present moment.
Actually, I’m not even sure if the ‘winners’ have it particularly good either. After all, there is always someone with something you don’t have. A more beautiful partner, more money, a better job, a better body, and the list can go on.
Because it’s an immutable fact of life that we can’t be number one in everything, we should prepare ourselves for the fact that we will, at times, come across other people who we perceive have a better life than us.
If we stop to think about it, this is quite natural. There are, at the present moment, several billion of us alive, and so it’s likely that some people are living ‘better’ lives than us on several levels.
Strictly Speaking, it is Greener.
As a quick interlude, I would like to answer the actual literal question, as this also has interesting conclusions.
The grass looks greener on your neighbours garden because you see it from a different perspective...
The grass under your feet is viewed from a 90 degree angle, as you are essentially looking right down at it, while you will view your neighbour’s grass at something approaching a 30 or 45 degree angle.
This means that you will see the soil on your side of the fence, as there is nothing behind the grass from your point of view. When you view your neighbour’s grass, however, you will see more grass behind the grass, as you are viewing everything from a shallower angle, and this means that it will appear greener.
This is interesting, because the grass on the other side of the fence is only appearing greener because of where you are viewing it from, not because it is actually greener.
We can actually take this concept and run with it, when discussing this question in a more figurative manner.
However, before we move and do this, I would like to take our investigation of the liberal question further, to its logic and somewhat absurd conclusion.
Let’s say that you actually buy some equipment to measure the colour of the grass on both sides of fence, and you go into both gardens to do so, and, believe it or not, your neighbour’s grass is indeed greener.
Well, I guess the first question is ask is why? And to this, there may be a multitude of answers:
- Her grass is a different, luxury “brand” grass.
- She employs a professional gardener to meticulously look after the garden, regularly watering the grass, and cutting it uniformly.
- She has premium fertiliser from an organic farm.
- And there are probably hundreds of other possible answers.
The next question, is what was the cost, both financial and personal?
Is your neighbour making sacrifices that you are simply not prepared to make to have her grass so green? Does your neighbour have to spend large amounts of time and money on keeping this grass green? Is her enjoyment of her garden overshadowed by the fact that she is concerned about ensuring the grass’s greenness in all seasons? Does she stay away at night thinking about her grass?
So perhaps your grass is literally not so green, but the rest of your life doesn’t suffer for it, and I think having simply normal grass is a good price to pay for a tranquil and happy life.
The Real Question
So having determined than in fact the grass in not greener on the other side of the fence, but merely appears to be greener due to an optical illusion, we should then figure out the real question that we need to ask when we are not tackling the original question in a literal manner.
After all, is the grass always greener on the other side?
The answer to that question is, unequivocally, no.
The real question we should be asking is ”Why do we always perceive the grass to be greener on the other side?”, because more often it really isn’t greener.
The problem is that we all tend to keep our own problems hidden away, and we put a “public” face on when we’re out and about, and that’s what everyone perceives.
The following encounter…
“How are you?” “I’m fine, thanks, you?” “Yeah I’m fine.”
…is perhaps the shallowest form of human communication possible.
The person asking the question is already expecting the usual answer, and is also expecting to give the usual reply after that too.
This is more of a greeting than actually asking how the other person feels, because we already know that they won’t actually tell us how they feel, because that is not what we’re conditioned to do in the society we live in.
And that’s absolutely fine, but then we shouldn’t take the answer to a throwaway question as if it’s gospel. Most people will tell you everything is fine regardless how they are actually doing.
So if you are not doing so great, it can appear that everyone is, at the very least, fine.
We’ve all heard, and probably experienced, the old adage that the “grass is greener on the other side”, In today’s world of social media, we have experience a case of the “Grass is Greener on the Other Side Syndrome”, as are continuously exposed to everyone’s curated gardens, showing beautiful landscapes, holidays, food, parties, and lifestyles which ours never quite seems to match. And yet, we need to understand that this is all a fabrication, that just like the real grass across the fence, it only looks greener.
At no time in history has this idea has been more important.
Of course, one way to avoid this, is to simply not use social media. I am currently considering this myself, but I’m not quite sure if the tradeoff is worth it. Social media does make communication simply effortless. However, for most of the world’s population that don’t use social media, or even have access to the internet, this is not a problem that they have through this medium, but it’s still a problem nevertheless.
We’ve seen cases lately of young, beautiful women “coming out” regarding their real life vs their Instagram life, and (re)uploading their content with different captions to show just how different the reality is from those singular captured moments on Instagram.
A clear example of this is a picture of a woman in a lotus position on a beach. The original caption highlighted how “zen” she felt, and the changed caption discussed how there is nothing zen about trying to achieve the lotus position while taking dozens of photos, to find just one that was good enough to upload.
So there we have it, in a nutshell, the grass appears to be greener on the other side because nobody really let’s their true self come through.
This is partly why I decided that I wanted to start publishing my thoughts online as myself, instead of anonymously like I used to do before. It’s because I want to be able to have the confidence to show all my sides to world, and be proud of who I am, not who other people want me to be.
I am planning a few essays that discuss highly personal issues, that I hope will educate others to not make the same mistakes that I’ve made, and to also take things off my chest.
In fact, let’s take myself as a great example. If you’re reading this on my current website you may get an impression that I am a very well balanced individual with plenty of time and a minimalist aesthetic, and generally a great life.
I would probably agree with you, that yes, I’ve got it pretty good as far as things go, but only some of the time. Like anyone, I am also battling internal contradictions, laziness, certain forms of addiction, Impostor Syndrome, uncertainty, all while trying to understand where I belong in the world.
As a young man, I wonder if I am really a man, or just a boy, and anyway, what does it actually mean to be a man?
Now these are not normally issues that I would share with a stranger, or perhaps even with just an acquaintance or casual friend, and so they would only experience the positive aspects of my life, and so think that grass is indeed greener on my side of the fence.
On a more trivial level, the same goes for when people ask about my business and work. Currently I am the director of a few companies, and I would never go into a deep discussion about technical issues, staff problems, pending legal action, or any client projects.
This is for two reasons:
- It’s my business – quite literally. I don’t feel the need to share in-depth details about it, just like I don’t generally share in-depth details of my personal life.
- The other person probably doesn’t actually care that much. When they ask, it’s a variation of the previous example of shallow conversation.
So we should be very careful about seeing other people’s public success and think that they are living a perfect life that we can only aspire to. Everyone has issues, but very few bring those up to the public.
And there are great sides to this too. We can be inspired by people, and we can go on and do some incredible things, even if we don’t immediately grasp the amount of hardship involved. In a way, it’s great, because being aware of all the hard work before one starts down a certain path can be discouraging, while being slightly naive about it can definitely have it’s benefits, as long as you can brace yourself for surprises along the way.
The flip side to all this is that we end up with unrealistic expectations of how our lives should play out. We see the sanitised feed of all our friends, and think that our life should also be just as exciting.
An interesting exercise is to think about our lives, and create a highlight reel of the best moments, and see how those stack up with the fabrications that other people display. This should just be done as a purely academic experiment, I would be very careful about attaching any value to this, because the point is not to prove to yourself that you’re having a better life than other people, but to see how easy it is to fabricate what is essentially a lie.
Turning Things Upside Down
In the introduction, I mentioned the modern American school of thinking that claims that having strong desires, and striving to reach them each day, is the way to live.
Before we go down this road, I must confess that I strongly disagree with this viewpoint, and in fact I would go as far as to say that it’s one of the major issues that faces humanity today: the insatiability of the human race.
However, let’s still take a look at our “is the grass greener on the other side of the fence” question from this viewpoint.
One could claim that not thinking that grass is greener on the other side would mean that you wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. After all, if you think that what you’ve got is just fine, why bother doing anything?
The argument goes, why bother with scientific advancement, why bother innovating, why bother going to work, why bother making the effort to maintain relationships, find a partner, bring up children, and so on.
Apparently, if we didn’t think the grass was greener on the other side, the human race would essentially end our existence out of sheer laziness and withdrawal, within a few generations.
So for people who hold the above opinion or similar, it might be one of the worst things possible for a human being not to think that the grass is greener on the other side. Having a never ending wish list of things to own, to do, to experience, is exactly what makes humanity so dynamic, and the world so varied. If we didn’t have this, perhaps the world would be a strange and quiet place.
The Dutch philosopher Spinoza once noted that “Desire is the very essence of Man”. In this, he was correct, but whether we choose to let our desires run rampant or keep them in check, is up to us.
But perhaps the more we think we are missing out on, the more we think that the grass is greener on the other side, the more we will accomplish. Our drive will be stronger, and even if we are chasing a moving target, we can still look back and smile at all that we achieved.
As I write this, I am reminded of the 39th chapter of the Enchiridion of Epictetus:
The body is to everyone the measure of the possessions proper for it, just as the foot is of the shoe. If, therefore, you stop at this, you will keep the measure; but if you move beyond it, you must necessarily be carried forward, as down a cliff; as in the case of a shoe, if you go beyond its fitness to the foot, it comes first to be gilded, then purple, and then studded with jewels. For to that which once exceeds a due measure, there is no bound.
So perhaps while on the surface the idea of always wanting more sound great, perhaps we are running towards a cliff edge, as it has been shown time and time again in history that there is essentially no limit to our capability for desire, our insatiability for something newer or better.
However, there is a cure…
Overcoming The Syndrome
So I hope that by now it is clear that caring about whether the grass is greener on the other side is actually quite pointless.
However, jealousy, which is what this behaviour is, is not something that can just be wished away. It takes time, diligence, and practice.
We need to remove the idea that we might be constantly missing out on something better, and instead focus on what we have now, and learn to enjoy it.
Just the fact that you a reading this, means that you are privileged. Despite the widespread adoption, internet access in 2015 is still a luxury. Having a comprehension of the English language to the degree that you would be reading this essay, is a gift.
Having the intellectual capacity to read an essay is several thousand words is, unfortunately, something that most people simply do not posses.
So, I know that you’re doing pretty well, regardless of the fact that I don’t know you or your situation.
So let’s focus on our side of the fence, because the grass is only as green as we keep it. We are in control of our own gardens, and we should take our pleasure from improving it, not comparing it.
A typical example is running a race. While you have competitors, they are also simultaneously your teammates, helping you to race against yourself and set a new personal record. After all, winning a race while running at an easy pace is not an achievement, it just means that you are running in a race that is below your level.
A few suggestions to overcome the syndrome:
- Negative Visualisation. Practicing thinking about all bad things that could happen, and how your situation could be worse.
- Fight against Hedonic Adaptation. Stop forgetting how lucky you are, and how you have many of things that you once only dreamed about.
- Simply accept the way things are. It’s much easier to change your opinion of the your current life situation than to completely change your life. However, don’t let this turn you into a lazy sod, change is possible, and with good daily habits, highly probably.
- Remember that there is probably someone who is jealous of your lifestyle.
Before I give my closing thoughts, let me paraphrase an ancient Chinese story that resonates strongly with the idea that the grass is always greener on the other side:
There was a poor sculptor Zuan in a county called Zhouzhi. He resented his hard life, sitting in the sun and doing grunt work for the royals. He prayed everyday. After a long hard prayer, one day a fairy came. Zuan asked to become the ultimate master who couldn’t have anyone dictating terms to him. The fairy gave him a magic wand that will make him whomever he imagines to be. Zuan got the magic wand and imagined to be the emperor of Xi’an. He has now become the emperor of Xian and starts having a happy life. One day, he went on a hunting trip to a distant forest. There he was captured by a group of cannibals who captured him and took him to the tribal chieftain. Before the chieftain could order to kill him, he used the magic wand to become the chieftain as he felt the chieftain was more powerful than even a king. He had a good life as a chieftain, until a regional warlord started harassing him. The warlord kept demanding more and more taxes. Zuan used his magic wand again and became the warlord. His life as a warlord looked good until a day he was struck in massive storm. The rain ransacked his troops and he was left stuck in the devastating storm with nowhere to hide. Zuan imagined to become the cloud that caused the storm (as that was more powerful than the warlord). Zuan now transformed into a cloud and started wandering around free. Then hit up on a big mountain and couldn’t move further. He then desired to be the rock that could stop even the clouds. Zuan now felt really strong as he was the rock that made the big mountain. On a hot sunny day, there were a big group of sculptors who came searching for nice rocks to carve. They started using the tools against the big rock of Zuan. As the rock started crumbling, Zuan imagined himself to be a sculptor. He became the sculptor once again.
Unfortunately, we, just like the sculptor Zuan, can’t escape from who we are, but we don’t have to lose hope. As we have seen, there are plenty of proven ways to combat the influence of the Grass Is Always Greener Syndrome, and simply by being aware that it exists we can being to take steps to make sure we don’t fall under it’s influence.
I’ll leave you with this final thought.
It is often said that grass always looks greener on the other side because it’s been fertilized by bullshit.
I believe that one could do well to keep this thought in mind when jealously strikes.