How can a person decide if he is rich or poor? And how can a person decide if he should be happy or sad? Are there specific pitfalls that we tend to encounter when trying to perceive the answers to these questions?
Overall Quality of Life
Lets think about how we perceive our overall Quality of Life. If there is a Steady Slow Improvement (SSI) then most people are happy. But if there is a Rapid Large Improvement (RLI), we tend to quickly become acclimated to the new higher standard of living.
When a RLI is followed by a Sudden Drop in Quality of Life, most people react with strong unhappiness. And this tendency holds true even when the RLI + Sudden Drop leaves the individual still well above where they were before the RLI, and well above where they might have been if they had only experienced SSI.
So what explains this phenomenon? It has to do with the way in which we tend to perceive things and how we set our “Minimum Acceptable” standards. Once these standards have been established they become a baseline from which we make future decisions about the worthwhile-ness of happiness and gratitude.
The Advance of Technology
The advance of human technology and the overall standard of living over the last 100 years is a good example of this, when you compare it against recent (relatively minor) downturns in fortune – for example, a period of high unemployment.
And this explains why most people (not everyone, but most) will say that, if they could choose any decade to live in (out of the last 100 years), then most people would choose the decade of 2010. That is because technology has so strongly improved our quality of life that a poor person (in 2010) is, in many concrete ways, much better off than a rich person from almost any earlier decade.
This is probably easier to visualize when we look at things from the perspective of larger blocks of time – for example centuries. Clearly, a poor person in 2010 is fabulously better off than a rich person from 1910, 1810, 1710, etc.
The Perception of Wealth and Poverty
In fact, the difference between the perception of the Quality of Life of a poor person in 2010 versus that of a rich person in 1910 might mainly have to do with the way in which their social beliefs drove their self-image (i.e., “I am considered rich (in 1910), therefore I feel good about myself” versus “I am considered poor (in 2010), therefore I feel bad about myself.”
And maybe this explains what my mother and father meant when they told me: “We were poor when we were growing up, but we just didn’t know it – so we never felt poor. We always had enough to eat and clothes to wear and a roof over our heads and families that loved us.”
Which makes me wonder if they really were poor?