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Prosperity Growth and the Satisfaction Gap

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Your grandfather probably worked to live. Your mother and father most likely fired to make a living. Your children will be working to define a life.

– Jeff Hunter, 2006 ((Hunter, Jeff. October 31, 2006. “Economics to Identity.” Retrieved from on November 12, 2006.))

There’s really no argument that the industrialized world has gotten quite a bit wealthier over the last 100 years, 50 years, 20 years or whatever other timeframe you want to use. There’s really no argument that we’ve accumulated more and nicer things over that same timeframe. There’s some great empirical evidence that states we are none the happier for all that money and those things.

Yet despite all the massive increase in our wealth in the last 50 years our levels of happiness have not increased.

“Standard of living has increased dramatically and happiness has increased not at all, and in some cases has diminished slightly,” said Professor Daniel Kahneman of the University of Princeton.

“There is a lot of evidence that being richer… isn’t making us happier” ((Rudin, Mike. April 30, 2006. “The Science of Happiness.” Retrieved from on November 12, 2006.))

I was trying to explain to one of my aunts why I made my last job change:

Aunt: You were perfectly happy at your last job?

Me: Yes

Aunt: They didn’t pay you enough though?

Me: They paid me a perfectly fair wage. But it wasn’t about the money.

Aunt: I don’t understand. Your new job must pay you a lot more.

Me: Well, the money really isn’t that important. I wanted a new challenge. I wanted a new growth opportunity.

Aunt: Why would that be important? Your new job must pay you much more money.

This illustrates several things that Jeff so excellently pointed out. First, our parents were truly trying to get by and perhaps get ahead a bit. Compensation was the major factor in one’s pursuit of self fulfillment. Without compensation, the better parts of leisure were out of reach. Self actualization was not possible without the pursuit of compensation.

Today, the industrialized world has created so much wealth (disproportionately, but that’s another day) that most people in the middle class can focus less on compensation, and more about self actualization. The fact that we can largely ignore compensation in search of other employment factors speaks volumes to the difference between us and our parents.

As we look forward to our children, we’ve already noted that they have also made the shift from work, to leisure and play. They will work not to be paid, nor will they work to achieve greatness in their work. They will work in order to fund their activities outside of work.

So in short:

  1. Our parents worked for money.
  2. We made the shift from money and we work to do great work.
  3. Our children made the shift from work, and will be self actualized by their non-work activities.

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