Dr. Ludwig and Dr. Myers are members of the faculty of the department of psychology at Hope College, Holland, Michigan.
This article appeared in the Christian Century May 30, 1979, p. 609. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
‘Poortalk’ — that peculiar affliction that shows up whenever middle-class conversation turns to economic issues — focuses our attention on ourselves blinding us to the needs of others. Although our standard of living has doubled in the past three decades, we bemoan the near-impossibility of trying to make ends meet at today’s prices.
The Western industrial nations have undergone an astonishing growth in prosperity since World War II. In the United States the living standard of the average family has doubled in the past three decades. But this unprecedented rapid growth in real income may now be ending, say some economic prophets, or at least ought not be allowed to continue. Skyrocketing energy costs, diminishing supplies of nonrenewable resources, exploding population, and the alarming build-up of pollutants in our air, water and soil have brought together an unlikely chorus of conservationists, economists, politicians and scientists who warn that limited growth, zero growth or even economic decline will be forced upon us.
Even if the doomsday visions do not materialize, we must still cope with our fluctuating economy and its rising rate of inflation. Many Americans today have the idea that their economic condition is worsening. As we pay the price of high inflation and heavier taxes, we complain to one another that we can no longer afford things we used to buy routinely. When bill-paying time comes, we bemoan the near-impossibility of trying to make ends meet at today’s prices.
But despite all this “poortalk,” as we have called it elsewhere (“Let’s Cut the Poortalk,” Saturday Review, October 28, 1978, pp. 24-25), the fact is that buying power is not less than it used to be. Even if we take into account increased taxes as well as inflation, real disposable income for the average American has risen more than 50 per cent in the past 25 years.
Why, then, do we not feel 50 per cent more affluent than we felt in the early 1950s? Why do yesterday’s luxuries become today’s necessities, leading most people to feel that their needs are always slightly greater than their income? And what trauma may we expect if the predicted limits to growth do in fact materialize and we enter a slow-growth or no-growth era?
Several principles from psychological research can help us understand the emotions that accompany economic fluctuations. These concepts assist in explaining our insatiability, and they prompt us to consider alternative routes to personal security and well-being.
The first principle is the adaptation-level phenomenon. Although research on this topic is relatively recent, the idea dates back to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. The basic point is that success and failure, satisfaction and dissatisfaction are relative to our prior experience. We use our past to calibrate our present experience and to form expectations for the future. If our achievements rise above those expectations, we experience success and satisfaction. If our achievements fall below the neutral point defined by prior experience, we feel dissatisfied and frustrated. This principle was plainly evident in the high suicide rate among people who lost their wealth during the Depression. A temporary infusion of wealth can leave one feeling worse than if it had never come. For this reason, Christmas-basket charity may be counterproductive, making the recipient family more acutely aware of its poverty the other 364 days a year while doing nothing to relieve the impoverished state.
If, however, the improvements persist, we adapt to them. Material progress does not sustain a sense of increased well-being, since our experience is recalibrated so that what was formerly seen as positive is now only neutral and what was formerly neutral becomes negative. Psychologists Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell have noted that this principle, well grounded in research, predicts that humanity will never create a social paradise on earth. Once achieved, our utopia would soon be subject to recalibration so that we would again feel sometimes pleasured, sometimes deprived and sometimes neutral. Increased material goods, leisure time or social prestige will give pleasure only initially. “Even as we contemplate our satisfaction with a given accomplishment, the satisfaction fades,” note Brickman and Campbell, “to be replaced finally by a new indifference and a new level of striving.”
This is why, despite the increase in real income during the past several decades, the average American today reports no greater feeling of general happiness and satisfaction than was the case 30 years ago. Moreover, cross-national surveys on rich and poor nations do not reveal striking differences in self-reported happiness. Egyptians are as happy as West Germans; Cubans are as happy as Americans. “Poverty,” said Plato, “consists not in the decrease of one’s possessions but in the increase of one’s greed.” Assuming that inequality of wealth persists, there is a real sense in which we shall “always” have the poor (Mark 14:7). The poor remain poor partly because the criteria for poverty are continually redefined.
The ‘Psychology of Affluence’
A recent study of state lottery winners illustrates the principle. Researchers at Northwestern University found that people felt good about winning the lottery. They typically said that it was one of the best things ever to happen to them. Yet their reported happiness did not increase. In fact, everyday activities like reading or eating breakfast became less pleasurable. It seemed that winning the lottery was such a high point that life’s ordinary pleasures paled by comparison. The phenomenon cuts both ways: paraplegics, the blind and other severely handicapped people generally adapt to their situation and eventually recover a normal or near-normal level of life satisfaction. Human beings have an enormous adaptive capacity. Victims of traumatic accidents would surely exchange places with those of us who are not paralyzed, and most of us would be delighted to win a state lottery. Yet, after a period of adjustment, none of these three groups departs appreciably from the others in moment-to-moment happiness.
The adaptation-level phenomenon implies that the transition to a no-growth economy would have negative psychological effects, at least in the short run. The rapidly rising prosperity of recent decades has become deeply embedded in people’s consciousness and in their expectations for the future. Surveys indicate widespread anticipation of continually increasing affluence. In one University of Michigan survey, nearly half of those who reported feeling satisfied with their present standard of living said that the absence of further increases would be “disappointing” or even “disturbing.”
This “psychology of affluence,” as Bernard Strumpel calls it, has permeated the thinking of Americans at all income levels, from the corporate executive down to the welfare recipient. According to Strumpel, “Satisfaction with standard of living in the United States is largely a response to a dynamic phenomenon, to the change in the level of income and standard of living rather than to the level itself” (Economic Means for Human Needs [University of Michigan, 1976], p. 26).
Clearly; the adaptation-level principle, together with the fact that Americans most frequently mention personal economic considerations as their reason for being happy or unhappy, suggests that an end to the growth of economic prosperity would produce a temporary decline in reported happiness and satisfaction with life, even if the actual level of economic prosperity stayed the same. If one seeks life satisfaction through material achievement, a continually expanding level of affluence is required to maintain one’s old level of contentment.
Differences and Discontent
The second insight from psychological research is the relative-deprivation principle. Whereas the adaptation-level phenomenon is rooted in changes in our own experience across time, the relative-deprivation principle is based primarily on comparison with other people. The basic point is that success and failure, happiness and discontent are also relative to what we observe others like ourselves experiencing. We evaluate our present experience not only in terms of some absolute internal standard of success or happiness, but also in relation to the rewards our peers receive. If our rewards are greater than those received by others whom we perceive to be of similar background, education or occupation, we experience happiness and contentment; on the other hand, if our rewards fall below some weighted average of the rewards accruing to our peers, we feel a sense of righteous indignation. A salary raise for a city’s police officers will temporarily increase their morale, but it may deflate the morale of the local fire fighters.
If human beings were perfectly rational and objective creatures, individual differences in the level of satisfaction based on social comparison should balance out. Half of the people in any group would perceive that their rewards were above the group s average, and thus feel pleasured, while the other half would perceive themselves as deprived. However, since humans are neither perfectly rational nor objective, most people in any group are likely to feel dissatisfied with their economic situation, Researchers have found that those individuals who are objectively below the average for their group do indeed express dissatisfaction, but those objectively above the average are often equally dissatisfied. According to R. K. Merton, at each income level Americans seem to want just about 25 per cent more than they have, with only the extremely wealthy segment of society showing any sign of income saturation.
More Deserving Than Others?
Two additional phenomena fuel the relative-deprivation experience. Recent psychological research has devoted considerable attention to a self-serving bias in our view of reality. People generally perceive themselves as more admirable and deserving than others in their peer group. This phenomenon has been observed numerous times in laboratory experiments. It is also evident in several national surveys. Most business people perceive themselves as more ethical than the average business person. Most people regard their own views as less prejudiced than is typical of their community or even of their friends and neighbors.
The human tendency to see oneself as better than others is surely a source of much discontent. When a company or an institution awards merit salary raises, at least half the employees will receive only an average raise or less. Since few see themselves as average or below average, many will feel that an injustice has been done. The shortest line of all would be composed of those who feel they were overpaid.
Note that people’s impression that they have been unjustly evaluated does not necessarily signify actual injustice. Even if God himself prescribed the salary increases according to his most perfect justice, many would still be upset -- unless their self-perceptions distributed themselves in conformity with the true distribution of employee excellence, which they surely would not. A fixed-percentage or fixed-increment salary increase does not resolve the problem. Many people may then feel that equal pay is, for them, inequitable, since they are more competent and committed than most of their colleagues.
The resentment that accompanies high inflation -- even in times when wage increases keep pace with prices -- partly reflects the self-serving bias. Economist George Katona has observed that people tend to perceive their wage increases as the reward for their talent and effort, and thus they see price increases as cheating them of gains which are rightfully theirs.
The dissatisfactions bred by self-serving pride are compounded by a second psychological phenomenon -- the principle of upward comparisons. Laboratory experiments indicate that when people are given the opportunity to compare themselves with various other people, they generally choose to measure themselves against those whose performance or rewards have been superior rather than inferior to their own. Similarly, highly educated privates in World War II, whose chances of promotion were very good, exhibited more discontent with their prospects for promotion than did their less-educated peers who actually stood less chance of being promoted. The reason? According to R. K. Merton and A. S. Kitt, the well-educated soldiers chose to compare themselves not with their fellow privates, but with their educated peers who had become officers.
It seems that when climbing the ladder of social status, people look up, not down; their attention is focused on where they are going, not on where they have come from. This principle of upward comparisons presents problems for social planning, since it partially negates the benefits of governmental policies designed to upgrade the educational and occupational levels of the lower-income segments of society. As a family or employee group increases in affluence and social status, it elevates the comparison standards by which it evaluates its own achievements. Paradoxically, this means that actual gains in income, possessions or status may be offset by psychological losses stemming from the change in comparison group. Liberation movements by raising their adherents’ aspirations and expectations, may simultaneously stimulate increases in their actual achievements and in their perceived relative deprivation. Becoming a feminist is probably not initially going to alleviate a woman’s frustration with her lot in life. In the short run, at least, she is as likely to feel more frustrated.
Psychologists have found no upper bounds for the rising aspirations embodied in this principle. The ladder seems infinite, so unless we renounce the climb, we will be forever comparing ourselves with others above us. We are like rats on a “hedonic treadmill,” requiring an ever-increasing level of income and social status just to feel “neutral.”
The Pursuit of Happiness
This sounds a bit pessimistic. Is there any cause for optimism? Taking a cynical viewpoint, we can draw some consolation from the fact that the adaptation-level principle works in both directions: if personal or societal economic pressures force us to adopt a simpler life style, we will eventually adapt and recover life’s balance of happiness, discontent and neutrality. This approach is more traumatic than necessary, for the principles discussed above can also be used to speed up the recalibration and smooth the transition during any period of economic change. To this end we offer the following suggestions.
If we feel deprived, we can first analyze our present life satisfaction in light of the adaptation-level principle, pinpointing recent changes in income or status and evaluating how much effect each has had on our happiness. Most of us will realize that past fluctuations in income, material possessions or social status have had only a transient impact on our satisfaction.
Perhaps that is why the Declaration of Independence specifies only the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right, since our elation over an achievement always fades into neutrality, only to be replaced by a new level of striving. Just becoming aware of this fact can be a first step toward gaining mastery over the adaptation-level phenomenon. Recognizing the relativity of our perceived deprivation can diminish our feelings of actual deprivation. Realizing our past captivity to our appetites can open us to a new perspective on life such as the one Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount: Happy are those who renounce selfish ambition. One shall find abundant life by losing one’s life, not by clutching at things; simple living unclutters the heart and makes room for those things that have ultimate value.
Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher-slave, urged likewise: “Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.” The Preacher of Ecclesiastes expressed a similar sentiment:
I have also learned why people work so hard to succeed: it is because they envy the things which their neighbors have. But it is useless. It is like chasing the wind. They say that a man would be a fool to fold his hands and let himself starve to death. Maybe so, but it is better to have only a little, with peace of mind, than be busy all the time with both hands, trying to catch the wind [Eccles. 4:4-6, TEV].
This is not to commend apathy and fatalism. Epictetus cautioned us to distinguish between those things that are in our power and those that are not. If the source of our perceived deprivation is subject to our control, then we should struggle mightily to correct the problem. If however it lies outside our power, we should accept our situation with calmness and equanimity.
A Liberating Perspective
Second, we can make a conscious effort to reduce “poortalk,” that peculiar affliction that shows up whenever middle-class conversation turns to economic issues. Over and over people complain that they are underpaid, defeated by inflation and taxes, and no longer capable of affording their family’s needs. Some think that such mutual commiseration is harmless, but research has indicated that what people say influences how they think and feel. The very act of complaining about unwelcome economic changes may therefore increase our discontent. Poortalk also focuses our attention on ourselves in a way that blinds us to the needs of others. A typical example of poortalk’s myopia is the case of the Michigan congressman who argued against a tax on “gas-guzzler” cars on the grounds that they are driven by people who “need” large vehicles to pull boats or trailers.
Third, by sensitizing ourselves to the self-serving bias, we can prepare ourselves to handle the twinges of anger and frustration that come when it seems that we have been treated unfairly or have not been given just reward for our accomplishments. On such occasions, we need to do some hard-headed, objective evaluating. Knowing that such a bias permeates our self-reflection may prompt us to search our pride and find the peace that accompanies true humility.
Fourth, we can exercise choice in the selection of our comparison groups. We can resist the tendency to measure ourselves against those higher on the ladder of success, and instead choose to compare ourselves with those less fortunate. Earlier generations were taught to perform such comparisons by way of “counting one’s blessings.” Today we can gain the same benefit by means of selective exposure to comparison groups. We can avoid settings in which we are surrounded by other people’s luxury and wealth. We can even go out of our way to confront true poverty, to drown our relative deprivations in the sea of absolute deprivation that exists for so many human beings. Discovering how relatively small our problems are can make us more sensitive to real poverty. It can give us an appreciation of the extent to which some people’s unmet needs -- clean water, adequate nutrition, medical care -- are things we take for granted. Realizing this will not only sensitize us to the suffering of the truly impoverished; it will also help us develop an attitude of gratitude for what we have.
Finally, Christian faith encourages us with the good news that our struggles will not endure forever. Authentic Christian hope is not built on a make-believe escape from life’s frustrations and agonies, but it does promise that evil, deprivation and heartache are not the last word. At the end of his Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis depicts heaven as the ultimate liberation from the relativity of experience. Here creatures cannot feel deprived, depressed or anxious. There is no adaptation-level trauma, for happiness is continually expanding. Here is “the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” This resurrection hope does not eliminate the ups and downs of day-to-day life, but it does offer a liberating cosmic perspective from which to view them. To paraphrase Rubem Alves, the melody of the promised future enables us to dance even now. As a folk hymn of the St. Louis Jesuits puts it:
Though the mountains may fall,
and the hills turn to dust,
Yet the love of the Lord will stand
As a shelter to all who will call on his name
Sing the praise
And the glory of God.
Here on earth we will never completely escape the “hedonic treadmill.” But by becoming aware of the relativity of our appetites, by reducing our poortalk, by consciously selecting our comparison groups, and by viewing life from the perspective of resurrection faith, we can glimpse the radical liberation of the Psalmist: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I have everything I need.”