How Well do you Really Know Those Joneses, Anyway?


By Dr. Allison Belger

I grew up in an affluent suburb of New York City.  During the ’80s when I was in middle school and high school, many of my friends’ fathers worked on Wall Street.  The financial industry was booming, and some of the wealthiest financiers lived in my home town.  My father, a hardworking physician, used to joke when he’d pull into our driveway after picking me up from one of my friend’s mansions, that he thought he was doing well until he saw their house and cars.  On the flip side, when we would host soccer players from out of town, competing in local tournaments, they would always “ooh” and “ahh” over our home—how big it was and how fancy.  It’s all relative.

We’ve all heard the expression “Keeping up with the Joneses,” which captures what happens when people attempt to acquire material goods and social standing commensurate with that of their successful neighbors.  You can read about the history of this idiom and potential meanings of it here.

Despite clear warnings against trying to keep up with our neighbors, at certain times in our lives we may succumb to social comparisons and envious feelings, and we may alter our own efforts accordingly.  Keeping up can become a full-time job.   We may covet the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, and the trips they take.  We can yearn for their beautiful homes and lucrative jobs.  We often admire/desire their striking good looks, their natural athleticism, or their family cohesiveness.  We may dream of having their well-mannered, talented children along with their easy popularity and exciting social life.  Indeed, we come to believe that what we see of the Joneses is all there is to see, that their lives are truly so much better than ours.

The thing is, how well do we really know those Joneses?  How much do we know about what goes on behind their closed doors, how they parent their children, or what they say to each other when they’re angry?  How much do we know about what Mrs. Jones looks like when she rolls out of bed, how Mr. Jones treats the people who work for him (and what they really think of him), how Junior Jones behaves at school, or how Miss Teenage Jones feels about herself when she lies in bed at night?  Can we ever get beneath that surface, even if we consider them friends?

The Joneses I’m talking about don’t even have to come in that traditional form—a financially successful family with good looks to boot.   For you, the Joneses might present as the very fit woman at the gym who can do things with a barbell you’d like to be able to do, or the student who gets better grades in your college humanities class.   It might be the trim, tan executive who rides on your bus every morning, effortlessly flirting with beautiful women.  Or maybe it’s the 60-something woman who walks her dog each morning with a kick in her step, more energetic than your own, at age 47.   You see, the Joneses are tricky and chameleon-like in their capacity to show up in different forms at different times in our lives.

In the case of the beautiful Mrs. Jones: as you critically observe the wrinkles on your own face, are you aware that she has struggled with adult acne for years and takes all sorts of potions from Birth Order Plus to achieve the skin you see?  Did you know that the guy with the job you desire suffers from self-doubt and bouts of depression? Were you aware that Little Boy Jones has tantrums in school and throws things when he’s at home being a kid, more often, even, than your own spirited child?

While we’ve all heard the warnings about trying to keep up, we often sustain feelings of envy, which are misguided and self-defeating.  We say it at our gyms all the time:  Don’t compare yourself too readily or too often with other athletes.  If you want pull-ups like that woman in red (call her a Jones if you like), you should certainly work for it, but there are some things you might not know: Woman-in-red has struggled for years to achieve what seems so effortless to you, and she would love to have your strong legs!  The goal is to compete with yourself–to become the fittest, healthiest, and happiest possible version of you–and to avoid being drawn into physical and social comparisons.

Sure, there are some Joneses who have been dealt a fabulous deck of cards and truly do live a relatively blessed existence.  Some people are more fortunate than others—no doubt about it.  Still, remember that behind closed doors they too have feelings and doubts that they keep to themselves, much as you do.  The answer may be to choose positive role models and mentors—with strengths to be admired and human weaknesses too.  Understanding the achievements of others and how they arrived at their success can be productive and powerful, providing motivation to propel you in directions you’d like to go.

Keep in mind that there’s a slippery slope from inspiration to a self-defeating frenzy based on unrealistic, idealized notions of the lives of others.  The best route is to strive for what is meaningful for YOU, not because you imagine it will transform you into a version of somebody else.  You might not actually want the behind-the-scenes reality that comes along with the perfection you perceive on the outside.  And if you still long for those external trappings but are unwilling to make the kind of sacrifices it would take to get there, that’s okay too.  It’s your life, and your name isn’t Jones.


  1. You’re just awesome!

  2. Patty Flynn Elliot says:

    Really great- thanks, Allison!

  3. This was really helpful–a great re-focus!

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