Have you heard? The Joneses filed for bankruptcy. It seems, like everyone else who tried to keep up with them, they were living above their means. The big house, new cars, endless trips and toys, all of that "stuff" ultimately turned them into a textbook case of a broke American family --chapter eleven of that book, to be exact.
What does that mean for their disciples? With national credit card debt around 2.5 trillion dollars and the net worth of American families plunging 38 percent in three years, the news of the Jones' financial crisis has made "typical" families take a good, hard look at their own lives, in search of a new way to measure success, or a new family to latch onto -- like the Smiths.
While the Joneses lived too many years being liquid-asset poor, a term reserved for those who make a decent income yet have little to no savings or emergency fund, the Smiths have adopted the opposite approach. In fact, they've taken drastic steps to avoid being anything like their paycheck-to-paycheck neighbors, by living a financially stable, socially conscious, environmentally friendly existence.
In the ways we used to idolize, yet slightly resent, the Joneses for their trend-setting, lavish lifestyle, the Smiths' perceived abilities to raise perfect kids, make a difference in the community and save the earth can also make the rest of us feel inadequate as we try to keep up. Toss in Chinese lessons, cooking classes and the endless reports of the latest intellectually stimulating conference or enriching cultural event, and who wouldn't feel bad about their own evening ritual, spent on the couch watching ridiculous amounts of reality television? Pop culture is still culture, right?
But it's hard to dislike the Smiths. They really are nice people who will go out of their way to help others, and always with a smile. Mrs. Smith, who earned a master's degree at the University of Perfection before spending a year in the Peace Corps, is the first to whip up an organic, locally grown casserole for another mom in need, right after she volunteers in the classroom but before she separates her baby's homemade food into individual, freezable containers.
And what about Mr. Smith? That guy doesn't miss a scout meeting or soccer practice and is even known to stop for groceries without being asked, using his own stash of reusable bags, pulled from the trunk of his dry-washed, economically sound hybrid. (Many of us would be happy if our husbands would simply remember to take out the garbage! Come on, how hard is it to remember? It's been the same day every week for the past eight years.) If you live on the same street as the Smiths, you're in luck; Mr. Smith not only remembers to line up his trash and recycling bins in their appropriate spots, but he's also more than happy to help by pulling a neighbor's cans to the curb.
And the Smiths seem so happy! But it's that not-so-tiny detail that actually makes those who try to keep up with them so miserable. Their personal choices seem to leave them satisfied, but when we try to emulate the Smiths' behavior, we're miserable-feeling stretched thin, tapped out and emotionally unfulfilled.
Gretchen Rubin, author of New York Times bestseller "The Happiness Project" and the recently released "Happier at Home," says one common trap keeps people from achieving true happiness -- trying to build it on someone else's foundation. "You can only build a happy life on the foundation of your own nature. If you build your life on what other people think or what you ought to do, you're never going to be happy."
Who hasn't found herself in the middle of a conversation about something she thought she was *supposed* to be interested in? Or has joined a time-intensive class or group only because someone she cared about was interested in the activity? Not having identical interests with those we love is not a character flaw and while being flexible and open-minded to new experiences is positive, spending our limited free time engaged in activities for someone else prevents us from discovering our own happiness.
Happiness is a personal, unique formula, but as different as the journey to happiness may be, there are two constants -- having clear priorities and flexibility. One person might work 80- hour weeks, six months out of the year, in order to afford to travel throughout the other six. But if seeing the world isn't on your list of priorities, that personal choice would never bring you happiness. Discovering and owning your own priorities is the first and most important step.
In the midst of a year dedicated to "finding happiness," Rubin discovered a couple of things about herself that she says has helped her relieve some of the pressure that can prevent a state of contentment. Unlike Mrs. Smith, Gretchen admits that she prefers popping into her convenient if overpriced neighborhood grocery store to spending time, money and effort hunting down locally grown produce.
Rubin also discovered she really doesn't care for music. "I wish I did, but I don't. It is what it is and I am who I am." Knowing and admitting that frees her up from wasting time at concerts, allowing her to choose another activity to enjoy with friends and family. "We don't want to admit it sometimes," Gretchen says, "that we're not doing what we want to be doing. We're at home but wish we were working, we're working but wish we could stay at home... we are happier when we are ourselves, reflecting our own nature and values. If you are constantly eating yourself up with other peoples expectations or expectation of yourself, you'll never be satisfied."
And after you have determined what those priorities are and begin to pursue your own kind of happiness, the next step is to own your choices. "The more comfortable you are, the less you care what other people think," Gretchen adds. "If you're going to get criticized either way, do what you want to do and let the rest slide off your back."
As for the Smiths and our old friends the Joneses, don't put them too high on the pedestal. Because as surprising as it may be, there's a good chance they're trying to keep up with you.
Follow Jackie Morgan MacDougall on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JackieMacD