Is “everybody sucks/has crappy lives/etc.” actually helpful for people who are having difficulties?

One of the things I’ve noticed on blogs/fora where the author is having trouble with marriage or kids or work, or what have you, is that often someone in the comments will say, “Oh, everyone’s life is like that.  We’re all miserable/have terrible husbands/rotten kids/awful bosses.  You’re normal.  That’s normal.  Anybody who says differently is a lying liar who lies.”

And this is provided as comfort.

Does it work?

Honestly for me, if I were in a bad situation and got that comment and truly believed it, I might end up being all, “why bother?”  If life is going to nasty brutish and short what’s the point?  Why continue living or striving?  Why not just give up?

I’m glad I don’t believe it.  I’m glad I believe that life can be better.  That marriages can be functional instead of dysfunctional.  That kids can be helped.  That there are good job environments out there if the current one is bad.  I’m not an optimist, but I am optimistic that if I work hard to change things, life can get better.  Maybe not the way I would most prefer, but better than a horrible situation.

The big question though is:  Does this kind of comforting actually provide comfort?  Do people feel better when they’re in a crappy situation and someone comes along and says yeah, all situations are crappy.  (Not, mind you, “it’s not just you” but the more inclusive, “it’s everybody.”)

What does the research say?  It is true that people are happier (and healthier) when they’re at the top of a distribution and can point to people with crappy lives.  This may be why the Koch brothers and others in the 1% of 1% of 1% are trying to destroy America. Big income disparities make people on the top happier than do little income disparities.

But I don’t think it has to be that way.  You’ve got people like Gates trying to bring the bottom up, trying to decrease the income differential.

Research also notes that people who satisfice– who set an external absolute level target– are happier than people who try to optimize.  Maybe if you’re focused on comparisons with others, you’re happiest on top, but maybe you’re happier still if you’re not comparing yourself with others at all.

I don’t know the research on this, but my guess is that it is best to focus on absolute levels rather than relative differences.  Comparing yourself to other people is a sure way to misery because someone will always be better on any level.  (And it must be lonely at the top.)  Instead, compare yourself now to the yourself from before and reach for the yourself that you want to be.

And it’s best if you know that that life that you want to have is actually achievable.  And it’s more likely to to be achievable if someone else is already achieving it.  Because it’s a big world out there, and it would be pretty difficult to be the first person to have a happy marriage, great kids, or a fulfilling job if that had so far eluded the entire world’s population throughout time.

I almost tagged this with deliberately controversial, but I wasn’t sure that it fit (since this is one of those things where there’s so much potential for individual variation), so I stuck with debatable.  Still looking forward to discussion!

What do you think?  Does being told that everybody has your problem (whatever your problem is) provide comfort?  Does it provide despair?  What do you prefer as responses ?

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The negativity jar

The Imposter Syndrome and other forms of negativity can keep people, especially women, from achieving as much as they should.  If you say enough negative things about yourself, eventually other people start to believe them too.

One of the things that we did back in graduate school (during the job market) was have a big jar named the “Negativity Jar.” Anytime we said something negative about ourselves, we would have to put a quarter in the jar (we were poor graduate students– you might want to up that to $1 or $5). That forced us to restructure to say things that were actually true– to get at what was actually bothering us, and not to reinforce the negative lies. It forced what Cognitive Behavioral Therapists call “Cognitive restructuring.”

After about 2 weeks there was no more money put in the jar. At the end of the year we were able to buy a little bit of chocolate, not the hard liquor we’d been planning on.

Have you ever had a problem with negative self-talk?  What have you done to address it?  Did it work?

The experiences vs. stuff post

Lots of research from here and there suggests that people get longer lasting happiness from buying experiences than from buying stuff.

Obviously that means we should all become minimalists and travel the world, right?  Get 100% experiences and 0% stuff because experiences are always superior to stuff.

Obviously that’s silly.  (As is streaking through the world…you’re likely to get arrested.)

When we try to decide whether to do more of one thing than another, we’re interested in how much additional happiness an additional unit of each thing will give us.  This concept is termed, “marginal utility.”  We want to know how much happier one unit of something is going to make us.  We’re not interested in how happy all of the things we already have are making us, just how much adding or subtracting a unit of each thing will make us.

The canonical example of marginal utility (and diminishing marginal utility) is that of pizza.  Let’s say you’re stuck in Detroit on a weekend at 6pm at the conference center, starving, and the only place open is Sbarro at the attached mall.  The first slice of pizza gives a high marginal utility.  You’d be willing to pay a few dollars for it.  The second slice of pizza you don’t really need so much, so you’d only be willing to pay a couple of dollars for it– if it costs $3.50 you’ll only get one slice.  A third slice of pizza you might be willing to take free.  A fourth slice and you’re not really interested.  The happiness you get from pizza is determined by both the inherent value of the pizza and how much pizza you already have inside of you.  (And if you’re trying to decide between pizza and a beverage, the beverage gets more attractive compared to pizza the more pizza you eat.)

In this framework, experiences aren’t automatically better than stuff.  If you don’t have a lot of stuff, stuff becomes more valuable.  If you have a lot of stuff, travel becomes more attractive by comparison.

Basically what this happiness research is showing is that people in general have too much stuff and not enough experiences, so the marginal utility of an additional experience is greater than that of an additional unit of stuff. (Americans have too much stuff–did we really need a study to show that?  I thought the rubbermaid commercial made it pretty clear!)

Those of us who travel a lot don’t feel the need to travel anymore because we’ve long since hit diminishing marginal returns to happiness on travel.  Especially if we don’t have as much stuff as the average American.

So don’t take the research on happiness and experience as a mandate to get rid of all your stuff and spend all your time traveling!  There’s nothing wrong with you if you’d rather buy a china cabinet than spend a week in Tahiti.  Maybe for you the marginal utility of an additional unit of stuff is greater than the marginal utility of an additional unit of travel.  Maybe you have plenty of time to engage in your hobbies and not a ton of income, so adding to your wardrobe is more important than buying more time.  Maybe you don’t spend enough time at home doing nothing and would like to spend more.  We all have different values for these things in absolute terms and we all have different stores of these things.  Thus we all get different marginal utilities.

Just because the average American needs to declutter and travel more doesn’t mean you do too.  And that’s ok.

And maybe, just maybe, you want to buy thousands of books and nice shelves to put them in and a house big enough for a library and a comfy chair to read in.  In which case, we salute you.  (And secretly hope you invite us over to share.)