❝We're so busy watching out for what's just ahead of us that we don't take time to enjoy where we are.❞ -Calvin, Calvin and Hobbes
In the adult cartoon series Archer, the main character, Sterling Archer, works for a spy agency and is arrogant and self-centered. In one episode, the agency accountant Cyril had the following exchange with Sterling:
Sterling: Take the suits to my tailor and the shoes to my shoemaker.
Cyril: You have a shoemaker?
Sterling: …(confused)…Do you not?
This, of course, is a comedic scene meant to shine a light on the absurdity of Archer’s self-centeredness and lack of empathy. It’s funny.
A short time later, I find myself on an airplane returning from a business trip. I sit next to two women in their early 70s who have to drive three hours to get to their hometown in central Minnesota after we land. They just returned from a cruise, and it sounded like it was the time of their life.
Midflight, as we are experiencing some turbulence, I overhear the following exchange:
Woman 1: Is it supposed to be bumpy like this? This is kind of scary.
Woman 2: Yeah. This is pretty normal. It’s called turbulence, and there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Woman 1: Thank you! You sure know a lot about flying. You must’ve flown before.
Me (thinking to myself): Have you not?
As I thought about that for a second, I realized I’m just like the character Archer. As I thought about it further, I realized we all have moments like this. We all have things that we take as normal, forgetting that other people have different experiences than we do.
Many of our problems can be considered “first-world problems” by someone. It can be insightful to learn what our first-world problems are. We can shine a light on what we might be taking for granted.
You have come a long way. We can interpret that in many different ways. One interpretation is that you, specifically as an individual, have come a long way. Another interpretation is that society has come a long way. Either way, our lives are probably better than they used to be.
At a societal level, those of us who live in developed countries have a dream life. You don’t have to go back many generations to find people who didn’t have access to a shower or had to go outside to use the restroom. Automobiles are cheaper, safer, and more widely available than they used to be. And it’s a safe bet that you have seen more of the world than your great-grandparents did.
On a personal level, materially, things have likely improved for you. I’m willing to bet that you have a better television than you did twenty years ago. You likely have more comforts in your home than he used to. You can do virtually anything delivered to your place within a day. And you can carry around a supercomputer in your pocket.
Unfortunately, we are very good at getting used to what we have. What we have, in fact, becomes the new benchmark that we judge everything else through.
Unless you live in a major metropolitan area, it used to be quite difficult to get a taxi. Now, we can use our phones to get a ride in minutes. But if our Uber is five minutes late, we become very frustrated.
We used to be ecstatic that we could access all of the information on the internet even though we had to use our phone line to get a connection. It didn’t matter how long it took. Now, if a page takes thirty seconds to load, we complain.
In the past, if you sent a letter to somebody, we would have been happy if we got a response within a couple of weeks. With email, we might get frustrated if we don’t hear back the same day.
Because of what is known as the hedonic adaptation, we forget that what we have is what we used to want.
The repercussion is that our wants are never going to be satisfied. The cycle is that we strive for more, get it, get used to it, and then have to strive for more again. We find ourselves stuck in an endless pursuit of more. Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill. We keep spinning our wheels but ultimately get nowhere.
As we get more and more, we adapt to what we have. We also tend to notice what we don’t have, and, by extension, we notice others who have more than us. We might find that we put off our happiness until we finally get what we want. Yet this is just a continuation of the hedonic treadmill because as soon as we get what we want, hedonic adaptation kicks in. We get used to it, compare ourselves to others, and set out to get something else we wanted.
A grateful person exhibits certain traits. Rather than feeling deprived in life, a grateful person experiences a sense of abundance. A grateful person acknowledges the contributions of others to his/her success and well-being, appreciates life's simple pleasures, and acknowledges the importance of experiencing and expressing gratitude.
As we keep striving for more, we become more sensitive to smaller differences. As standards increase and everybody’s lives become better and better, we become hypersensitive to more minor differences between others. This is sometimes called the Blue Dot Effect. Essentially, this says that the better things get for people, the more we perceive unfairnesses where there is none.
For example, imagine a future where we have eliminated all crime. In this world, everybody is equal, nonviolent, and has the same things as everyone else. In this world, it might be tempting to think that this is what heaven might look like. Instead, Emile Durkheim, founder of sociology, suggests that it would be closer to hell if that happened. The reason is that the more comfortable society becomes, the more small differences between people would be magnified. In other words, the more alike we are, the more insecure we become.
And so we have a situation where the more we get, the more sensitive we become to differences. We might live in a first-world country and have access to clean running water inside our homes. Now imagine coming across somebody from a third-world country who is impressed by the fact that we have running water inside our home. Our natural response might be one of confusion. We might ask, “Do you not?”
Yet, within the group of people who have running water in their homes, there would be differences. A person whose family has a single vehicle might be impressed by other households that have one vehicle per driver. And the cycle continues because those with multiple cars may be so used to having multiple cars that they respond with, “Do you not?”
And on and on it goes because even within people with but one car per driver in their household, a subset of those people might have their own shoemaker. And when somebody wonders about them having a shoemaker, the response might be just like Archer’s, “Do you not?”
It is common for us to feel frustrated, and this is exaggerated and made worse by the fact that we have a negativity bias. We are wired to notice threats more than opportunities. This includes the fact that we are wired to notice differences more than similarities.
The next time you start to feel frustrated with your position in life, it might be helpful to try zooming out. Practicing gratitude is a great way to combat hedonic adaptation and keep us from jumping on the hedonic treadmill.
Take stock of some of your life's "Do you not?" areas. What might you be taking for granted? Can you find a way to feel grateful for the things that seem to operate in the background?
You get one life; live intentionally.
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REFERENCES AND INFLUENCES
Archer: Tragical History
Ben-Shahar, Tal: Being Happy Ben-Shahar, Tal: Even Happier Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier, No Matter What Dalai Lama & Howard Cutler: The Art of Happiness Emmons, Robert: THANKS! Emmons, Robert: Gratitude Works! Glasgow, Joshua: The Solace Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis Hanh, Thich Nhat: No Mud, No Lotus Hanson, Rick: Hardwiring Happiness Hanson, Rick & Forrest Hanson: Resilient Harris, Dan: 10% Happier Irvine, William: Guide to the Good Life
Urban, Tim: Life is a Picture, But You Live in a Pixel
Urban, Tim: Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy
Urban, Tim: Your Life in Weeks