Carola Long: Don't keep up with the Joneses. Beat them

As long as we out do our friends and neighbours, money makes us happier

If you're planning to buy a new car, conservatory, or any other aspirational trophy, do your research first. Not into value for money or any other such practicalities, but into what your neighbour has got. If the family next door has a new Range Rover, pimp yours with a personalised number plate; if someone over the road has a new box hedge, embark on some extravagant topiary; because according to a new study as long as we're outdoing our friends, neighbours and colleagues money can make us happier.

The survey, led by Dr Chris Boyce of the University of Warwick's Department of Psychology, compared an individual's happiness with others of the same gender, age and standard of education, or from the same area. Boyce found that more money only makes people happier if they are better off than those around them, and their social status increases accordingly. The truth is we're not really coveting Richard Branson's private island or Abramovich's mega yacht, but are locked in competition with our peers. No wonder those websites which let you see how much other people's houses cost are so addictive. They're property Prozac.

But ascertaining that your flat is worth more than the Joneses at number 33, but not so much more that they might come and rob you, isn't enough; there are plenty of other groups with which to compare yourself. A recent episode of Mad Men, the most psychologically acute show on television, summed up our attitudes to success and status perfectly. Self- obsessed advertising executive Pete Campbell is given a promotion, only for his short-lived smugness to turn to rage when he discovers that another employee has been elevated to the same position. The vignette neatly illustrated the fact that for many, success is only sweet when it's not shared.

Of course, it's not a new observation. Back in 1739 David Hume wrote that, "it is not a great disproportion between ourselves and others which produces envy, but on the contrary, a proximity". (Something Hume's fellow Scot Gordon Brown would probably agree with, given his years spent eyeing his famous neighbour's job.) Rather more pithily perhaps, Morrissey summed up this ungenerous instinct when he sang, "we hate it when our friends become successful".

Yet while this attitude might not be new, it's something that, in our state of post-crash enlightenment, we might have hoped to have left behind and outgrown. An attitude that belongs to what we now dismiss as the Loadsamoney Eighties or the petty material one-upmanship of surburban America in the Fifties, when a new electric lemon squeezer, or shiny Cadillac, practically made the owner a local celebrity.

It's like a moral snakes and ladders: we move up with the realisation that money and possessions don't make you happy, then slide back down again after discovering that money can be a panacea after all, as long as we stay one step ahead of our peers.

Unlike ebay, however, where there's a setting which automatically outbids your rivals, keeping up appearances is a vicious cycle, albeit one we're clearly addicted to. Perhaps the only way out of it is to downsize and become a big fish in a small pond. As long as the neighbours don't have one, that is.