Climbing the social ladder is hard wired into our brains through evolution. In the animal kingdom, your status in your community determines the order in which you get to eat, how much food you have and whether you can mate and pass on your genes. As we’ve evolved we’ve held onto this instinct to move up the social ladder, and often we want to demonstrate our status by our material possessions. In our world of constant access to entertainment, news and information how we see our rank in our community, based on what other people have, can become distorted. As if trying to keep up with the Jones’ wasn’t demanding enough, we may be feeling like we need to keep up with the Kardashians.
Comparing what you have to what someone else has can be dangerous for your savings. In The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, Dr. Schwartz talks about how rising incomes in the US has had little impact on our individual happiness. The reason is two-fold. Reason one is that we tend to adapt to new situations quickly. Let’s say you get a raise, and you use your new income to buy a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood. When you move into your new home, you are thrilled with the new space, the nicer kitchen and the great back yard. However it doesn’t take long for your new abode to become familiar – the new normal, if you will. Pretty soon you start to hone in on the things you don’t like, or the things that aren’t quite as nice as your neighbor’s, Mrs. Jones.
The second reason is that our expectations rise. Not only do we want the new, bigger house, but maybe we look at our coworkers, who make the same money as we do, and start to wonder how they can afford that BMW. And if they can afford it, maybe we can too. The expectations of our income bracket are higher, and we start to think we are falling behind. The comparisons don’t stop with our coworkers and neighbors. We compare what we have to what families on television have. Before long that raise has been chewed up by a bigger house payment and a lease on a new luxury car, and we still aren’t saving for our future.
We’ve all had these conversations with ourselves. When Jeff and I lived in California, we were constantly asking ourselves how our neighbor, who drove a backhoe for a living, could afford a boat, a jet ski and a new truck. We didn’t have any information on his financial status, but we knew that with our savings goals, these toys were not in our future. Frankly that was a bit of a bummer. In making the choice about whether to save or spend our extra income, it is difficult to pass up the great things seemingly everyone else has.
Dr. Schwartz had a few prescriptions for our dilemma, but there was one in particular that I liked. Gratitude. In the words of David Steindl-Rast, “Happiness doesn’t make us grateful. Gratitude makes us happy”. Barry Schwartz, suggests practicing gratitude to help us avoid adapting to our lifestyles and remain content with what we have. Of course we’ll be grateful for the big things, like that raise or promotion, but its important to be grateful for the little things too. To get us started here is a sample of what makes me grateful from the weekend.
I am grateful for the time my daughter and I spent laughing until tears rolled down our faces at my execution of the dance move the Nae Nae. I’m grateful there is no video of my own moves! I’m also grateful that, during a very rainy Saturday, the rain held off while Jeff and I and some friends attended an outdoor concert. I feel happy just thinking about it all.
In these times of plenty, we have to find a balance between having things that compare well with our friends and neighbors and saving for our eventual financial independence. Being a slave to things and financial independence do not often coincide. In order to be happy with what you have and less tempted by what your neighbor has, try a little gratitude. It will increase your savings, and I promise it will brighten your day.