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You Must Be Happier Than Me

by Derek Sisterhen on April 20, 2010

I’ve read no fewer than six articles in the last week that deal with the issue of contentment. Whether talking about comparing income to others or wondering what life would be like if different decisions were made, it seems many of us are still focusing on that elusive Jones family and how to keep up with them.

A recent Harvard study asked college students if they would prefer to live in a society where they had an income of $50,000 and the average person earned $25,000; or one in which they had an income of $100,000 and the average person earned $200,000.

More than half chose the first option.

We love the idea that we’re making more than the average, don’t we? Makes us feel good deep down, like we’ve arrived. We love when we can tell someone that we’ve traveled to far-off destinations, too.

“Oh, you’ve never been there? I’ll have to show you my pictures.”

This must be what truly happy people do. They make more money and buy nicer things than the “average”. Who wants to be “average,” anyway? It’s such a bland word to define a whole group of people.

Unfortunately, contentment won’t be found in the next vehicle, house, vacation, dinner out, golf club, or handbag. If it was, there wouldn’t be so many weekend yard sales selling used contentment so inexpensively.

We’ll talk about how true contentment doesn’t equal consumption, but do we actually believe it? Our actions speak very loudly. When we compare our station in life to others, we begin transferring our power to change to someone else. You can redefine what contentment means in your own life; you don’t have to borrow anyone else’s version of contentment – nor the money to pay for it.

  • http://itmightbelove.com Chelle

    I've always defined happiness as not wanting anything. We always “want” a lot of things…when sometimes what we need is none of those things.

  • http://pastdueradio.com/ Derek Sisterhen

    Great point, Chelle – I appreciate you weighing in!

    I agree: if we really sat down and took a look at all the “stuff” of life, I think we'd find that our needs are few and our wants are great. It's not a very exciting or sexy exercise, for sure, but the folks who succeed with money make that distinction very clear.

  • http://potential2success.com Ralph

    I've learned to not want what I don't fully intend on getting. This way I am more content in my daily life.

    If I want something, and am working to get it, I can say “well at least Im doing this, this, and this, so I should get it soon.” If there is something that I really want and don't really see a way of getting it, I simply stop wanting it. I put it out of my mind or find something more meaningful to replace it. Works wonders for me. Great post

  • http://pastdueradio.com/ Derek Sisterhen

    Hey Ralph – thanks for your comment! It sounds like you have a very disciplined approach for dealing with “stuff”.

    What's interesting is defining more clearly what “a way of getting it” actually means. Some would say, “If I have unused credit on my credit card, then I have a way of getting something.” Others would say, “Unless I have cash to spend, I don't have a way of getting it.” It appears you've become very disciplined to keep the stuff of life in perspective, and not letting it control you. That's powerful!

  • http://pastdueradio.com/102-past-due-of-contentment-credit-scores 102 Past Due – Of Contentment & Credit Scores — Past Due: Radio

    […] and I had a great email conversation this past week all about my latest blog “You Must Be Happier Than Me” and the issue of contentment.  Does contentment mean you have to settle for less if you fall short […]

  • http://www.learntobewealthy.com Frank

    Derek, I got the impression from your podcast that you think the students choosing 50K when average is 25K was a choice of perspective. I have no doubt some respondent were thinking this way, but I’m sure there were some students that thought it out and gave an intelligent answer based on economic realities. Here is my case.

    This isn’t an issue of “FEELING”; it is math. You post states more than half of the college students selected option 1, preferring to make 50 when 25 is average. It was a Harvard study, but I’m assuming the students were not just from Harvard. Anyway, the majority of the students are thinking correctly.
    In an economic environment where 25K is average, then 50K is doing great! They are not just doing twice as well they are doing several multiples better. Think about it. If average income is X then the average cost of shelter is going to be A*X and the average cost of food is going to be B*X and the average cost of transportation is going to be C*X and on and on… If you are making significantly more than average then you are in a position to save and build wealth. Likewise, if you are making 100K in a 200K world you are struggling financially. You are probably living in abject poverty. Shelter and food alone will be a huge struggle. Forget about saving and building wealth.

    It doesn’t matter what you make. Wealth is not income!!! What matters is the surplus between your income and your outgo. The larger the surplus and the better it is managed the wealthier you will grow.

    Supplementary statistical point, when doing a statistical analysis of something like income we have to recognize there is a bottom. Natively we think that is zero, but it reality incomes need to be far north of zero regardless of its source. My three and six year old children do not have zero income. They have their own rooms in a large comfortable house and have virtually unlimited food, entertainment, transportation, not to mention love and affection. They live far above average for most American adults. Anyway, even assuming zero is bottom, there is no limit to the top. Simple bell curve analysis and population distribution will tell you “average” income earners are making more than “most” people. Average income is above the mean income. Signifying the high income earners are far above average; countered by a much larger population earning below average. Hence, even average is doing pretty well when it’s applied to the populous.

    Remember, there are liars, damn liars and then there are statistics!

    I enjoy your podcast and CoachRadio.tv too.

  • http://pastdueradio.com/ Derek Sisterhen

    Hey Frank – thanks for an excellent post adressing a whole different angle on this particular conversation! I love me some statistics, so I appreciate you offering your analysis.

    I agree wholeheartedly that from a purely economic standpoint, you're at a great disadvantage making half of what the average person makes. In today's terms, the average household grosses about $50,000 a year. So, in the example from the Harvard study, that would be like choosing to make $25,000 in today's economic world.

    My understanding is that this was a sociological study – more in the realm of the psychology of personal financial behavior – rather than a test of economic relativity. Iin other words, the question wasn't framed around the macro economic impact of having the average person make $200,000 while you make $100,000. From my viewpoint, that makes the study's findings that much more disappointing. The findings point back to the concern so many of us have with our image in front of others, rather than our ability to wisely (and confidently) manage our resources, regardless of who knows about it.

    I also agree with you that wealth is not the same as income, but what you do with that income. The more of us that learn that lesson, the more financially liberated people you'll see who make at or below the current “average” household income in our country.

    I greatly appreciate your comment! Thanks so much for being a listener and a part of this community!

  • http://pastdueradio.com/ Derek Sisterhen

    Hey Frank – thanks for an excellent post adressing a whole different angle on this particular conversation! I love me some statistics, so I appreciate you offering your analysis.

    I agree wholeheartedly that from a purely economic standpoint, you're at a great disadvantage making half of what the average person makes. In today's terms, the average household grosses about $50,000 a year. So, in the example from the Harvard study, that would be like choosing to make $25,000 in today's economic world.

    My understanding is that this was a sociological study – more in the realm of the psychology of personal financial behavior – rather than a test of economic relativity. Iin other words, the question wasn't framed around the macro economic impact of having the average person make $200,000 while you make $100,000. From my viewpoint, that makes the study's findings that much more disappointing. The findings point back to the concern so many of us have with our image in front of others, rather than our ability to wisely (and confidently) manage our resources, regardless of who knows about it.

    I also agree with you that wealth is not the same as income, but what you do with that income. The more of us that learn that lesson, the more financially liberated people you'll see who make at or below the current “average” household income in our country.

    I greatly appreciate your comment! Thanks so much for being a listener and a part of this community!

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