The Rose Garden Effect

When we want to know how well we’re doing, a natural place to look are the people around, above, and below us. This seems harmless, after all, you’re collecting evidence by looking around at the world!

But performing that comparison has some issues with selection bias. We each have a complex context. And there are a lot of people out there. Who do you choose to compare yourself to? Are you controlling for education? Opportunities? Age?

So here’s the secret: You don’t need to compare yourself to anything to figure out how well you’re doing. How well you’re doing is immediately and constantly accessible as sensations from your experience of being alive.

If you can’t access these immediate sensations, the natural place to look are at outside indicators and other metrics, like cleanliness of cars, noisiness of pets, obedience of children, number of roses in the garden, and gratitude of people that came to your parlor for lunch when you made a casserole.

I must be doing well, look at these babies!

Something I’ve noticed is that the times when it’s harder to access our immediate sensations are the times when things are in fact awful. Looking at pain straight on is difficult. So we become numb more often when our lives suck. And then we start to look outside of ourselves instead, either to solidify our narrative that things are bad or to try to convince ourselves otherwise.

It’s tempting to start rummaging through reality for a metric that makes it look like you’re doing well. Perhaps you can make yourself feel good in the moment by feeling proud of how you’re better (for your age) compared to those people you used to know in high school (if you look at it a certain way).

Only a third-rate journal would publish that finding.

Yet I’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t do this at least sometimes.

I’d like to propose an exercise: When you notice a desire to look outside to figure out how well you’re doing, take that as a cue to look inside. Whether you’re using these comparisons to boost yourself up or down doesn’t matter. The important thing is to look inside to figure out what’s really going on in your experience as a conscious being!

The next temptation might be to cherry pick parts of your inner experience to pay attention to. It’s all there, for better or for worse. Appreciations of the things that are nice is a plus, as long as you don’t use that to selectively avoid seeing the things that are bad.

All this is easier said than done. I can vouch that from the inside this feels sort of like taking away a comforting stuffed animal and replacing it with porcupine. But messing around with beloved narratives what this blog is supposedly about.

Personally, it’s a relief to peg “how I’m doing” to something as stable and honest as the full spectrum of my internal experience. Nothing external can take that away from me. Even if it means “how I’m doing” is bad in the interim, it’s easier to improve from there. It’s not the fragility of a floating number we use as a salve. And it’s not the duplicity of using others to buttress our own faulty narratives.

It’s knowable here, right now. But if you haven’t been looking inward lately, you might have some weeding to do.

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