Currently in her mid-forties, Ivanna* stares out the window in the seat across from me and lets out a long, defeated sigh.
“I know he’s a great guy,” she says of her partner. “But I just can’t help but wonder what else is out there. Can I really say goodbye to the dating world? To the excitement of meeting someone new?”
I’ve been seeing Ivanna for quite some time now. Up until this point, I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about her boyfriend—how he helps her out around the house, how he’s reliable, how they have a great sex life. But maybe he’s one of those “good on paper” boyfriends, she says—you know, the type who you want to love but just can’t seem to for whatever reason. Or, we wonder, could it be that Ivanna is falling into the downward spiral of thinking the grass is greener on the other side?
What is the “Grass is Greener” mentality?
Whether you’re talking about your relationship, apartment, or job, having a “grass is greener” mentality involves continually feeling like a different option would be better. And it’s usually coupled with a lot of daydreaming and fantasizing about some alternate reality where things are simply (and unrealistically) perfect.
I see this mentality very often in relationships; someone will become frustrated with their partner and think to themselves, “I’m going to find someone who does like to do dishes, okay!?” This mentality also frequents the world of physical health, with many people buying into the idea that losing weight will bring them irrevocable happiness.
Where Does This Mentality Come From?
There’s no question in my mind that a huge part of the grass-is-greener mentality is cultural. No matter where we look, advertisements are constantly trying to convince us that buying that new shirt, weight loss pill, or iPad will make us happier. Think of all the shaving commercials out there that show a clean-shaven man proudly feeling his smooth face before being smooched by his glamorous, size zero girlfriend. If you use this razor blade, you too can have a woman like this.
And don’t even get me started on how apps like Tinder and Bumble are contributing to this phenomenon. If someone’s partner gets on their nerves, they know that a potential new mate is just one swipe away.
From a psychological perspective, there’s a word for this whole phenomenon: hedonic adaptation. The theory states that regardless of any negative or positive events that happen to us, we will eventually return to a relatively stable level of happiness.
Take this example: it’s a hot summer’s day and you’re outside sweating your butt off. You decide to pop into a grocery store to buy yourself some water. The moment you step in, a cold blast of air envelopes you. Ahhhh!!!!! You feel an immediate sense of relief and happiness. But after about 10 minutes of wandering through the store, you completely forget about the wonderful gift of air conditioning. Instead, you’re complaining about how long the line is, how they’re out of your favourite brand of cookies, and more. Hedonic adaptation, ladies and gentlemen.
Essentially, although we might experience something as pleasurable initially, over time it becomes our “new normal” and we become fixated on what else might bring us pleasure instead.
How to Get Off the Hedonic Treadmill
1. Show some appreciation for what you have in the now.
Many of us have the tendency to think about how good things used to be or how great things will be when… Rarely do you hear someone say, “In this moment, life is good!” I’ve fallen into this trap myself a number of times; as an entrepreneur, I’m always on the hunt for new opportunities to grow my business, though it’s important for me to stop and look at what I have accomplished every once in awhile.
I have a sticker right on my laptop that says, “Remember that once you dreamed of being where you are now,” and I find myself feeling more centred every time I glance at it. Don’t forget this yourself!
2. Remember that you, too, have flaws.
As I mentioned, the grass-is-greener mentality can be a big one when it comes to dating, partially because the convenience of dating now makes it a lot easier to just “ghost someone” or write them off. And while I’m not saying you should stay in a relationship that doesn’t make you happy, it’s important to remember that no one is perfect. Give yourself a reality check and realize that every couple argues sometimes, every partner will do things that piss you off, and you, too, do things that drive your significant other absolutely crazy. Be humble and have grace.
3. Notice if you’re over-glorifying things.
Our brains often make a conscious effort to help us see the past through rose-coloured glasses, which sometimes gives us a skewed view of the world. For example, you might reflect on how “phenomenal” your last job was while failing to remember the countless nights you stayed at the office super late without receiving any appreciation from you manager. If you’re fantasizing about how awesome it would be to find a new job, it might be humbling to recall the difficulties that come with job hunting or remind yourself that every single workplace has its challenges. The goal, of course, is not to start thinking negatively, it’s to think realistically.
Regardless of the scenario, it can be helpful to ask yourself, "Do I really know for certain that the grass is greener on the other side? Am I 100% sure that this is true?" Or, in regards to specific scenarios where the grass does seem greener, you might ask yourself, "according to who?" This can helpfully remind you that your perspective is just that—it's only YOUR private, personal perspective. Someone in a minimum-wage job they can't stand might look at your job and say, "Wow, I wish I had that." Asking ourselves the according-to-who question can remind us that there are hundreds of ways fo looking at any situation; it sometimes simply depends on who you ask.
4. Stop comparing yourselves to others.
Remember, when we use someone's social media channels as our reference point, we're only getting a glimpse of what’s happening in their life; you never know what someone is going through behind closed doors. Additionally, it is completely unfair to compare our internal experience to someone’s external experience. Said differently, comparing your personal, private struggles to an edited image that is also open to interpretation is like comparing apples to oranges.
Additionally, all of us usually cherry pick when it comes to comparison, which is precisely what keeps us on the hedonic treadmill. We look at another couple and say, “I wish I had as much money as they do to go on so many vacations!” but fail to consider that having the income to do so would likely mean working very long hours, not seeing our partner as much, and more. One patch of their grass might look “greener” than yours, but you’re just looking at one patch.
5. Use “should’s” as sign-posts that you’re going down an unhelpful train of thought.
Much of our suffering occurs when we fixate on the perceived gap between how things are versus how they “should be.” If I start thinking about how I “should” have a sports car but am rockin’ a beat up Volkswagen, I’ll feel discouraged. If I start telling myself that my boss “should” be more encouraging, I'll feel angry.
The antidote to “should-ing on yourself” is to be mindful of your attentional bias and practice acceptance and gratitude.
Attentional bias is a psychology term used to describe our tendency to pay attention to some things and ignore others. There’s an expression that goes, “If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” which exemplifies attentional bias perfectly. Here are some examples of attentional bias at play:
A teenager who feels stupid for “not doing as well as everyone else” in school practices attentional bias by only comparing herself to the best students in the class. When her attention broadens to the entire grade, she realizes she’s doing exceptionally well academically.
A man who doesn’t think he’s in good shape focuses on all of the buff men at gym with aspirational physiques, yet fails to notice the individuals who are new to exercise with less muscle mass.
A woman who thinks her partner is unattractive only compares him to men she finds exceptionally good looking, not the general public.
In addition to broadening your attention, practicing acceptance and gratitude are great ways to get off the hedonic treadmill. Acceptance—which is not the same as liking something, by the way—is about allowing things to be as they are rather than using your energy to change that which can’t be controlled. It can be helpful to ask yourself what you’re willing to do to change the situation: if you don’t like your job, are you willing to leave and find a new one? If you hate the weather in Canada, are you willing to move to a warmer climate? If the answer is no, all you can do is practice acceptance. This is about reminding yourself that “it is what it is” and that we can only control so much. If there are things you can control, focus on that, then accept what can’t be controlled.
Along a similar vein, gratitude is about appreciating what is rather than trying to change it. I can stare at my apartment all day wishing it were bigger, but how productive is that? A better use of my time might be to remind myself how much I love the big windows—which are a huge step up from the basement apartments of my university days—or the positive memories I’ve had here regardless of its size. I can fixate on my partner’s flaws, which will naturally make me feel like crap, or I can remind myself of all the kind-hearted things he has done for me this week. It's all about perspective.
The Bottom Line
A hard pill to swallow is the fact that there will always be a patch of grass that is greener on the other side. There will always be someone who is more successful than you. There will always be someone with more money than you. There will always be attractive people who activate the lustful part of you and reminisce about your single days.
However, there will also always be people who are less successful than you, less financially stable than you, and less attractive than you. But the kicker is this: does it really matter? Does this relentless fixation on what we do have, don't have, or should have make any positive difference? I know from personal experience that it just doesn't. What does help is being appreciative for your life as it is and working to change only the aspects that you have control over. And as a funny quote once reminded me: if the grass is greener on the other side, it might just be because there's more manure there.
If you or someone you know is interested in receiving psychotherapy or nutritional counselling in Markham or Vaughan, please email email@example.com.