Imagine a 30-year old man in the US making $13 an hour working a blue collar job. Let’s call him Guy. Guy is married with two kids. He lives in a small apartment. He owns an iPhone and leases an old car. Between his wife’s part-time job at a restaurant and their frugal spending habits, the couple is able to make ends meet. By the standards of many in the US, Guy would not be considered a success. He works a job that isn’t stimulating. He lives in a modest house and drives a car with no style. He has no money for savings, retirement, and travel. Guy unfavorably compares himself to the people around him and is discontent with his life.
Now imagine that same 30-year old man living in Jordan, a developing country. Guy’s $13 an hour puts him in the upper 10% of national workers. The fact that he is married and lives alone is a huge testament to his economic success and distinguishes him from most people his age. He has a smart phone unlike many of his peers and is wealthy enough to drive his own car rather than rely on public transportation. Guy favorably compares himself to the people around him and concludes that he is a success in life.
I have seen this illustration play out a thousand and one times. The average individual in the US enjoys far more material prosperity than European kings in the age of monarchy. While the latter felt exceptionally good about themselves due to their relative material advantages, many of the former are dissatisfied with their economic status because it does not measure up to their peers or to society’s expectations. Human beings have this strange tendency to compare themselves to other people when assessing how they should feel about their lives. And they usually do it to people in their immediate milieu.
You’ve heard it said before, perception and reality are two sides of the same coin. What I am not saying is we shouldn’t strive to better ourselves and take advantage of every opportunity available in our environment. What I am saying is that today, while that process is still unfolding, it might behoove us to be grateful for what we already possess.