Talk about Compassion

This column originally appeared in The Observer magazine/Guardian online

How satisfied are you with your life? A fascinating new study from Granada in Spain suggests that the answer depends on the balance between envy and compassion. On a scale from 1 (totally disagree) to 7 (totally agree), how much do you agree with each of the following:


  • I am not worried about how much money I have; what worries me is that there are people that have more money than I have.
  • I am not worried about how much money I have, what worries me is that there are people that have less money than I have


The first statement measures envy. If you scored 1 or 2, then you are about as envious as the average person (or, at least, the average Granadan). If you scored 4 or above, you are more envious than about three-quarters of the respondents. Perhaps unsurprisingly, envy is negative related to life satisfaction: the more envious you are, the less satisfied you are with your life.

The second statement measures compassion. If you scored 3-5, you are about as compassionate as the average respondent (or, at least, as compassionate as they claim to be). If you scored 6-7 or 1-2, you rank, roughly speaking, amongst the 25% most or least compassionate respectively. But here’s the twist: Compassion was related to happiness, but in the opposite direction to that which you might expect. Those who reported worrying about the less well-off were happier than those who didn’t. A cynic would say that happiness lies in not just keeping up with Jonses, but ahead of them. Then again, it’s also possible that those who show concern for others are nicer people to be around, and so enjoy more pleasant everyday interactions.

A fully referenced version of this article is available at Order Psy-Q by Ben Ambridge (Profile Books, £8.99) for £6.99 at

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