All too often, however, we aren't thankful enough for what we have. Instead, we can easily become consumed by what we don't have as we compare our life situations to others.
In the end, we need to work to define what life circumstances will truly make us happy, pursue those things, and ignore what others say should make us happy.
Envy & the perils of human competition & comparison
The truth is, it is very difficult for human beings to not envy one another...it is as old as the Biblical story of Cain & Abel, among others.
This brings up the philosophical debate: are humans by nature competitive or cooperative? Obviously, we are capable of both types of behavior. Certain societal and institutional settings, though, can amplify one or the other.
For instance, capitalism and neoliberalism are focused heavily on competition and individualism. In addition, American culture is often centered around individuals striving to be "the best".
There is nothing wrong with working to improve and better yourself but gauging one's progress against others in a race to the top is fraught with peril.
Furthermore, social media platforms have enabled us to know even more about the lives of others and can fuel our envy for what others have that we don't. It's important to remember, though, that on social media individuals often display only the best version of themselves and their lives.
We all want to have happy, fulfilling lives but struggle to know what that looks like for us.
Everyone has different values and needs when it comes to what they classify as a "good" life.
So, allowing others to define what you should find meaningful in life is very problematic. It is incredibly common, though. We all have parents we want to please or life plans we think we should follow but that is a recipe to live a life that lacks personal fulfillment. The idea that smart, dedicated people need to aspire toward some high-paying, prestigious job is common among parents who want their children to "succeed". But that job as a doctor, lawyer, or consultant might not be what the child really wants.
You shouldn't allow societal expectations to define your life, either. American society values money a lot. So, if you aren't earning a large salary, you might be socialized to assume your life might not be very "good". Certainly, you need to earn some threshold of salary to live a healthy life without deprivation (one study says the magic threshold number is $75,000, but your mileage may vary).
In terms of how societal expectations apply to Ph.D.-trained researchers, the assumption is that "success" for this type of training is to eventually land a faculty job. Even though there are plenty of roles where a Ph.D. would provide value and the role might better fit the trainee's skills and interests.
The importance of self reflection & awareness
One huge obstacle in allowing individuals to find meaning in their lives is that we often fail to take the time to think deeply about what we want out of our life. While this seems like a basic place to start, our fast-paced, modern world doesn't leave much time for self reflection unless one makes a concerted effort to do it. In fact, psychologist Tasha Eurich's research suggests ~10-15% of people are self-aware.
Exercises to increase your self-awareness.
Designing Your Career online course from Stanford University (free).
More life design resources from Stanford.
The perspective we take to our "success" is the most critical component to our happiness. We can count our blessings or ruminate on our deficiencies. The former, positive thinking is infinitely better for your mental and physical health.
Or, I could focus on the fact that I am in very good health, have loving parents and two sisters who I get to see on a regular basis, have the flexibility in my work to take time for family, friends, and my own well being, and make enough to live pretty comfortably. On top of all that, I am doing work that I think is having a positive impact on the world, helping support others in their career & professional development.
All in all, I am doing alright.
Once you know your values, pursue them and don't let the opinions of others derail you on your path to your own personal fulfillment.
When you set your own metric of success and work hard to obtain it, you can find your own happiness. And that is something to truly be thankful for.
For further reading/listening
The Comparison Trap
How to stop comparing yourself to others
The age of envy: how to be happy when everyone else's life looks perfect
How you think about money can impact how happy you are in life
How the West become a self-obsessed culture
Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences (1989-2016)
Change your perspective, change your life
The Road to Character
The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They are the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being-whether you are kind, brave, honest, or faithful: what kind of relationships you formed.
Insight: The surprising truth about how others see us, how we see ourselves, and why the answers matter more than we think
Research shows that self-awareness—knowing who we are and how others see us—is the foundation for high performance, smart choices, and lasting relationships. There’s just one problem: most people don’t see themselves quite as clearly as they could. This book offers tips on improving one's self-awareness.
The Happiness Lab
WorkLife with Adam Grant
The Science of Success