The world has never been a better place to live. Despite the daily downpour of negative news, families in the United States and around the world have much to be grateful for. Especially when you compare American life in the 1950s to today.
Consider these comparative U.S. facts1.
Around the world, the improvements are even more profound:
· Global Poverty is Disappearing. The number of people living around the world in extreme poverty, defined as a daily income of less than $1.90 day, has declined from more than 50% in 1980 to less than 10%. 2
· Global Violence is Decreasing Dramatically. The percentage of people dying in world events fell from 3.7% in World War II to less than .01% 3
· The Global Middle Class is Rising. By 2025, more than 50% of the world population will likely be considered middle class or higher for the first time in history. There were about 3.2 billion people in the middle class at the end of 2016--500 million more than previously estimated. 4
· Greater Levels of Education Abound. The literate population has increased from 56% in 1950 to over 85% in 2018. 4
Gaining Perspective from the Past
These statistics describe in simple black and white the improvements made over the decades. Yet it’s the stories from generations past that paint the full color picture of how good we really have it.
This became clear to me recently when my mother-in-law Agnes Murasko, who was born in 1929, sent our family a book of her childhood memories. Her personal stories gave me a punch in the gut to my spoiled 21st century self.
Agnes was one of nine children raised during the Great Depression. Born to immigrant parents, her father was a coal miner who saved every penny to eventually buy a farm. Her mother, whose “hands were never idle,” raised the children and ran the home.
According to Agnes, they had it all: a garden, chickens, an oven her father built, and a spring house that kept food cold. Her father frowned upon waste; he even straightened bent nails so they could be reused. Her mother, who was quite scrappy, used chicken feathers to make down covers for the kids’ beds. Considering that three kids slept in each bed, it took a lot of chicken feathers to finish the task.
When the family got hungry, they couldn’t just dash over to the local grocery store. It didn’t exist. The food they ate came from their own land, and included homemade bread, canned fruit, and vegetables from their garden.
During times of celebration, the family enjoyed small indulgences. They marked special days by going to church, having friends over for cake, and making homemade wine. They reserved rare delicacies like ice cream for holidays such as the Fourth of July.
Although they didn’t really have hobbies, Agnes and her family enjoyed riding on the porch swing her father had built, listening to the accordion and other musical instruments played by family, gathering by the radio to listen to “I love a Mystery,” and perusing the Sears Roebuck catalog with siblings.
When the family wanted to “get away,” they didn’t take vacations, which were uncommon in those times. Instead they took day trips to Ohio or West Virginia. According to her parents, if you have “a roof over your head, food on the table, and shoes to wear, you are rich.” Following this life philosophy, her family was mostly unaware of the Great Depression despite the conditions of the 1930s.
Running on the Hedonic Treadmill
After hearing about Agnes’s experiences, I felt extremely blessed—and a bit guilty—to live in a time where we have so much available to us. It got me thinking: If we have so much more than previous generations, why do many of us feel deprived and de-energized as we crave for more in our lives?
Scientific studies and psychologists tell us that it largely boils down to “Hedonic Adaptation.” Also known as the Hedonic Treadmill, this is the tendency for humans to quickly return to a certain relative level of contentment, despite major positive or negative events happening in their lives. In other words, no matter what happens to you in your life, you very quickly get used to it and expect something more.
Hedonic adaptation is helpful in harsh circumstances. On the other hand, it can lead you to misery pretty quickly if you fail to recognize it. This can cause you to spend most of your life chasing entitlements rather than appreciating what you have and pursuing the true aspects of a happy life.
It turns out that when you jump to a new level of material convenience, you lose the ability to enjoy the previous amenities that used to impress you.
I liken it to my journey from my starter home to the one I live in now. While in my late 20s, I was thrilled to get my first condo. At 700 sq. ft., it was small, but I had my own kitchen, beautiful common spaces, and a balcony surrounded by trees. It was everything I needed at the time.
I now find myself swept up in the craze of wanting to renovate my 2,700 sq. ft. home which, by most standards, would be considered quite lovely. Both homes served the same purpose, and the pleasure was just about the same. I certainly enjoy aspects of my bigger home—like easy access to great schools--now that it houses a family of four. Yet there was also something thrilling about coming home to my condo with its simple space that required less maintenance and upkeep.
How to Beat Hedonic Adaptation
So how do you combat that feeling of always needing more?
1 – Deprivation. Studies show that the most effective way to learn to appreciate what you have is to move down the hedonic scale, either voluntarily or involuntarily. For instance, you could deprive yourself of an entitlement. For example, by dining out less, you will gain more appreciation of the rare meal out on the town. By sticking to the reliable, no-frills, used Honda, you will garner much more pleasure from the feel of a new luxury car.
2 – Acknowledgement. It does no good to deny the fact that you, as a consumer, have cravings for more. Though it’s wise to recognize them for what they are, avoid impulse buys to fill your inner voids and focus on directing money and time to those things that really bring you long-term contentment.
3 – Happiness. Scientists have discovered that a happy life comes from sources like meaningful work, a private life, community, health, freedom and a life philosophy. When you focus more on these elements than on what you feel entitled to, odds are that your happiness levels will increase.
4 – Perspective. Consider history and family stories as a guide to reminding you just how much you really have. Anecdotes from the past offer insight into what defined a happy life in decades past and those things you have in common that still provide long-term happiness.
5 – Knowledge. Lastly, an information diet could serve as a happiness boost. Instead of listening to the daily drama on TV, radio or the internet, read a good book or a study about how far we as a global society have come.
In the end, the good ol’ days are really just a matter of perspective. While we live in in a world that offers great convenience and material wealth, it’s important to keep in mind what is truly important to live a happy life. If you can learn to appreciate what you have, rather than constantly seek out the next best thing, you may discover that you already have more than enough.
1. Moore, Stephen and Simon, Julian L. (2013, December 13). It’s Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years. Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Statistical Abstract of the United States, International Labor Organization, United Nations, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
2. World Bank. (2017). Retrieved from Ourworldindata.org. Dollars adjusted for currency and inflation.
3. Oppenheimer’s Compelling Wealth Conversations 2018, pg. 63, where they cite 2013 Statistics on Violent Conduct.
4. Brookings Institute. (2012). Middle Class data. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/global_20170228_global-middle-class.pdf. The middle class has been defined by myself and many others, before and since, as comprising those households with per capita incomes between $10 and $100 per person per day (pppd) in 2005 PPP terms (Kharas, 2010; World Bank, 2007; Ernst & Young, 2013; Bank of America Merrill Lynch, 2016). This implies an annual income for a four-person middle-class household of $14,600 to $146,000.