Monday, August 15, 2011

Perspective and Expectations

Americans have high expectations.  We expect a lot for ourselves and for our children.  These expectations evolve and change making it difficult to maintain perspective.

Perspective is about separating needs from wants, knowing what are the necessities of life and what are merely nice to have.  Over time though, we begin to take things for granted.  This explains why so many people spend more money than they earn.  The recent recession, which drove debt to the extreme, has been a wakeup call for many as they live out the consequences of earlier behavior.

As I write this I am sitting in an air-conditioned house.  It’s 85 degrees outside and humid and expected to get warmer.  I am comfortable and grateful, but remember a time when home air-conditioning was a luxury only the rich could afford.  On a hot day people would find excuses to go to a store or to a movie just to get into an air-conditioned building.  The alternative was to set up the garden hose in the backyard or just sweat it out wearing a few clothes as was decent.  Today the standard of living for everyone is higher and home air-conditioning is fairly common – 88% of new construction vs. less than half 40 years ago.

There are many other things we take for granted.  We expect them and complain when our expectations are not met.  It has been ingrained in our psyches that these are rights, not recent developments that were unimaginable just a few years ago.  Let’s look at a short list.

Televisions:  More than half the households in the US have 3 or more TVs and only 11% do not have cable or the equivalent.  Can we live with fewer than three televisions, without cable or HD?  Certainly, but no one expects to.  In fact, there are more TVs in the US than people and a 2009 study stated that 71% of children between 8 and 18 have a TV in their bedroom.

Vacations:  One reason people are loyal to a company is the ability to accumulate vacation.  How long ago was it that workers never took a vacation, or if they did, they never dreamed of being able to fly to a particular destination?

Retirement, healthcare, unemployment Insurance:  These have a comparatively short history.  Up until about 75 years ago, people expected to work until they died, didn’t expect their employer to pay their doctor bills and depended on family to take care of them when they were no longer able to work.  It’s great that we have progressed this far, but perspective helps us feel grateful for the advances we have made rather than resentful that we don’t have everything we dream about.  Bottom line, it’s a happier and healthier way to live.

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