We've all read interviews with celebrities, or maybe even friends' blogs, in which they go on and on about how great their lives are, and we wonder what horrible shit we must have done in a past life to be dealt the hand we've got now. Bills, relationships, family, jobs ... everything just sucks. Meanwhile, everyone else in the world is running around with their sex and money and interesting hobbies. Sure, those people might have some minor inconveniences from time to time, but not like you.
"My hands are so full of prostitute I can't put my winnings away."
Studies have found that our pain, our unhappiness, the things that bother us, etc., we perceive as much, much worse than anything that others go through. We also assume that our lives are worse and that we are unhappier than those around us.
Part of this self-pity is due to the fact that it's a social norm for everyone to project only the good things about their lives. As the author of the study pointed out, just look at people's Facebook photo albums -- it's all parties, vacations, the new puppy, the new girlfriend, the new TV, the gang laughing at a bar. Nobody posts photos of themselves straining on the toilet and screaming that their colon is full of burning rocks. And your photos are probably just as carefree as theirs.
This life-affirming event makes your internal existential horror much less visible.
The difference is that you know there's frustrating bullshit going on in between those snapshots and that, in a way, your photo album is a lie. But you assume that everyone else's galleries of awesome are perfectly accurate cross-sections of what are clearly charmed lives. It never occurs to us that we're all doing the same thing -- building a pretty fence around a yard full of dog turds.
"That dead horse was on MY side of the fence, Carl. I want it back."
And this also makes sense when you compare it with the study about generosity from earlier, where people basically painted themselves as heroes. If our suffering is worse than other people's, then damn it, we're downright heroic just for enduring it.
So, for instance, you know other people suffer from headaches, but that thing you have right now is a HEADACHE. Your brain has been replaced by a pulsating wad of twisted nails. And sure, maybe you mocked Steve for slowing down at work last week because of his headache, but that's only because there's no way his felt like this. Or else he'd have been reacting way more than he was. Why, this is a headache that would fucking kill a normal man! And yet, you soldier on!
You're a lazy bastard, Steve.
At the very beginning of his crazy rant-filled downfall, Charlie Sheen went on the radio and gave this advice to fellow addict Lindsay Lohan: "Work on your impulse control. Just try to think things through a little bit before you do them."
"Also, remove the hat and beard, Lindsay. It makes you look like a madman."
Now, it's easy to pass that off as just the hilarious pot/kettle/black ravings of a crazy person, but look closer: You have two people engaging in the exact same behaviors. In Sheen's mind, Lohan lacks self-control, but he controls himself. He makes decisions about what he does (cocaine and hookers) while she just does things because of her addictions and personality flaws (cocaine and grand theft). When she participates in a drunken high-speed chase with a suspended license, it's just her impulses controlling her like a puppeteer. He, on the other hand, is simply exercising his God-given free will when he does a suitcase of cocaine with porn stars for 36 hours.
God is great!
Laugh if you want, but science says that bizarre double standard is at work in all of us.
Part of this is because when not presented with a temptation (drugs, alcohol, sex, even food), we drastically miscalculate how much of said temptation we can handle. According to a study at the Kellogg School of Management, people think they can handle a whole lot more temptation than they actually can -- and the more sure they are of their self-control, the more likely they are to be drinking that 12th beer or eating that fifth slice of pizza.
Again, if you see a friend do it, you shake your head at how pathetically out of control his appetites are. But because, from inside your own mind, you can see how easily you could not drink that beer if you chose not to, that beer is treated as the product of your cold, logical choice rather than your raging alcoholism.
Another experiment found another way to look at it. Basically, we identify everyone in our life by a type ("the drunk," "the genius," "the rich kid") but don't identify ourselves as a type. The guy on the bus who flew into a rage did it because he's an angry asshole. When you flew into a rage the next day, it was because of a series of complex rational choices.
You wanted to go to the chocolate factory, but someone said you were too old for school trips now and you'd be arrested.
Those researchers also found that, without consciously thinking it, we assume that our own future is a wide-open horizon of possibilities ("Where will I be in five years? Who knows?"), but we think the futures of the people around us are basically set ("Steve will definitely get a promotion; he's really smart."). In other words, we're the only ones whose day-to-day choices actually matter. Everyone but us is a robot running a program. A program written by the man.
And any day now, you'll break free of the matrix and just fly away.
But not us! Because we're awesome.
For more modern ideas that were here before us, check out 11 Modern Technologies That Are Way Older Than You Think and 6 Depraved Sexual Fetishes That Are Older Than You Think.