When I was in my early teens I recall that I was reading the newspaper when I came across an article about some billionaire getting a divorce. He was worth some $4B or so, and the article was all about how miserable he was what with the hellish divorce and his impending loss of wealth. A miserable billionaire – I was appalled and incredulous. Why, I would be more than happy to trade places with ya, pal! Sure, I’d fork over half of everything, and then I’d probably do a little happy dance after a quick dip in the money pool, Scrooge McDuck style.
It got me thinking about him, his situation, and how he could manage to be unhappy when he had effectively unlimited options. I thought that maybe he’d just gotten used to his riches and had lost perspective. That got me thinking about myself, about how unhappy I was, and I imagined some tribal dude in poorest Africa living hand-to-mouth, and how that guy would jump for joy if he could trade places with me. After all, by comparison I had everything. Roof over my head, clothes on my back, food on my plate. Warm in the winter, cool in the summer, hot & cold running water, educated and with plenty of leisure time. He would surely be thrilled and grateful – so why wasn’t I?
I also imagined what life was like for people in ages past. I thought about the kings of England and how they didn’t have air conditioning, or TV, or any number of other things which to me were commonplace but to them would have been luxuries, or astonishingly wonderful new inventions*. I wondered whether they would be envious of me.
It was an epiphany for me to realize that I took for granted my own circumstances just as much as that billionaire dude. That was the problem – I was so used to all that I already had. Hot & cold running water wasn’t making me happy, but it should. I imagined myself being that billionaire, and I could picture myself getting ticked off if I had to drive the Mercedes because the Lamborghini was is the shop again.
Once we get used to different circumstances they become “the new normal”. We can take for granted what are really luxuries, or we can scale back our everyday expenditures and consumption (which goes for time as well money) and get past the feeling of deprivation as we adjust to that “new normal”. Unlearning my ingratitude has been an ongoing process for me; I still need to remind myself of this lesson with some frequency. I think it’s in my nature, if not human nature, to think the way I did; maybe it’s cultural. Whatever the case it was my problem and I’ve tried to remember and implement the lesson I learned back then. It doesn’t always work but it can help. Sure, I play the lottery, but I try to deliberately take satisfaction in what I already have.