In a recent article in The Atlantic, Joe Pinsker shared some thoughts on why many ultrarich people aren’t satisfied with their wealth.
There seem to be two reasons.
- First, people tend to ask themselves: Am I doing better than I was before? Do I have more today than I did yesterday? “All the way up the income-wealth spectrum,” one researcher told Pinsker, “basically everyone says [they’d need] two or three times as much” to be perfectly happy. It’s the hedonic treadmill in action.
- Second, people can’t help but compare themselves to others. They ask themselves: Do I have as much (or more) than the people I’m comparing myself with? Do I have more than other folks in my family? Do I have more than my friends? Do I have more than my co-workers? We measure our personal success by comparing what we have to what other people have. This is the proverbial “keeping up with the Joneses”.
While Pinsker’s article is about the ultrarich, I think these tendencies apply to nearly everyone. Even me.
People in the middle class are just as inclined to hop on the hedonic treadmill. They’re just as likely to compare what they have to what their friends have. The same goes for those who aren’t well off. Even people in poverty get sucked into the comparison game.
In fact, I’d argue that for the poor and middle class, there’s an added element. Time and again, statistics show that folks with lower incomes watch tons more TV than people who earn more. (Also here — and many more studies.) When you allow yourself to succumb to the “other world” of film and TV, you’re exposed to more ideas about how people should and do live — even if these ideas are baseless. (It’s like “The Grand Illusion” by Styx: “Don’t be fooled by the radio, the TV, or the magazines. They show you photographs of how your life should be, but they’re just someone else’s fantasy.”)
The rich compare themselves to themselves and others. The poor do too but they also compare themselves to fictional characters on film and television.
The bottom line seems to be that comparing your situation to anyone is likely to lead to trouble. Whether you’re comparing yourself to yourself, your family, your friends, or to people in Hollywood productions, doing so leads to a desire for more.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.