The Power Of Perspective
So, we’re told that our appetite for more stuff is being whetted by our expanding reference groups. The lifestyle of more prosperous friends, colleagues and even “TV acquaintances” form the vortex of excessive spending. Experts counsel us to shrink our reference groups, when at all possible, to include only those who share our financial profile.
I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, I advise you to do exactly the opposite: Expand your reference group as much as possible.
Look around the room. Include everyone.
There is no more potent antidote for the disease of envy than a dose of perspective.
Have you seen what’s happening in North Africa? Haiti? Rural China?
From extreme poverty to military rule to the institutionalized abuse of women to non-existent health care - the problems that billions of our world’s citizens face daily should shine a light on just how fortunate we are. Note the word “should.” Somehow, though, we’ve lost perspective and seem oblivious to the more important facts: As Canadians, we won the country-of-residence lottery. We live in a prosperous, democratic, peaceful and beautiful nation. Our lives, by all but one standard, are incredibly rich. Sadly, that one standard - the opulent lifestyle of the very few who have more than we do - is often the only one on which we focus.
Bluntly, too often we treat the non-possession of what most of the world would consider an extreme-luxury item as an unjust deprivation.
Is it really that big a deal that your friend at work has a 32-jet, six-person hot tub and you don’t? Nine hundred million people across the globe don’t have on going access to safe drinking water.
Frustrated that you can’t locate a high-speed wireless connection? Remind yourself that more than a billion people don’t have electricity.
Annoyed that you don’t have stainless-steel appliances? Keep in mind that one in six people in the world goes to bed hungry every night.
Our pets live more comfortably than half the Earth’s population, for heaven’s sake.
We obsess so much about what we don’t have that it affects our ability to enjoy what we do have.
At a luncheon where I was speaking recently, one of the men seated at my table was nearly apoplectic because the TV’s in his new, state-of-the-art SUV weren’t high definition. What do you say to something like that? Perhaps we should divert international aid to address the problem so that he and his family won’t have to suffer any longer.
We should expand our reference groups not only to include the less fortunate throughout the world, but also to encourage those who have gone before us.
Many Canadians are completely out of touch with how much our lives have improved over time. These are “the good old days”! It drives me crazy that people can’t see that. Even the most optimistic economist of the 1970s. Julian Simon, didn’t forecast the incredible bounty that has come our way. We’re livin’ the dream, as the kids say.
Let’s look at a few quick examples, starting with our grocery stores. Amazing foods from all over the world are now at our fingertips. Nothing, not even berries, ever seem to be out of season. The selection in every aisle is nuts - including nuts themselves. In the peanut category alone, you can choose from salted, unsalted, roasted, dry-roasted, unroasted, butter-roasted, honey-roasted, shelled, unshelled, sugar-coated, yogurt-coated, chocolate-coated, hot ‘n’ spicy, bold ‘n’ zesty, smoky hickory, jalapeno-scented, barbecue, garlic and chili and believe in or not, the list goes on. How spoiled are we? Frozen entrees actually taste like real food now (remember the original Salisbury steak?). Salads come prewashed and ready to serve. We can buy fresh lobster in my landlocked hometown, Kitchener-Waterloo. Insane. Yet, somehow, food costs (as a percentage of our income) have trended down over the last century. Better quality. Higher safety standards. More variety. Healthy alternatives. Lower costs. Wow, there must be something to gripe about. Oh, that’s right - my store still doesn’t stock that thin-crust, multi-grain, low-sodium, nut-free, organic barbecue-chicken pizza that I tasted last week at my sister’s place. How will I survive?
What about cars? They’re unbelievable nowadays. Tires almost never go flat and when they do, some can re-inflate themselves. Who comes up with this stuff? You can buy cars now that will even parallel park on their own. Yes, on their own! Sign me up - I won’t have to hold up traffic for 20 minutes anymore. Air bags. Better fuel efficiency. Anti-lock brakes. Power everything. High-end stereos. Navigation systems. Are you kidding me? Still not enough for some, though. I complimented a friend on how cool his heated seats were (so to speak) and he responded, “I guess, but I really wish I had a heated steering wheel.” Hey. tough it out, big fella.
TVs? What can I say? High definition Large, plasma screens. Hundreds of channels. There’s a channel specifically for golf. For food. For the stock market. For the Leafs. The Leafs? And what about the remote? Man, what an ace invention. Have you ever been in an hotel room and your remote doesn’t work? You go into complete and utter shock and just keep pointing, pressing and panicking. Move five feet to change the channels? That’s crazy talk! Think of the TV’s 40 years ago. Many were still black and white. We got three channels: CBC, CTV and the same CBC broadcast but from another tower. Heck, the dial only had 13 options on it and channel 1 was UHF. I know now that UHF stands for Ultra High Frequency, but when I was a kid I assumed it meant Unbelievably Hard to Focus. The reception, even on the “good” channels, seemed to go snowy every time Mannix or Ironside was about to catch the bad guy. We’d force Mom to adjust the bunny ears with a metal coat hanger in her mouth - hey, whatever it took. Now people lose it when their PVRs miss taping the first 30 seconds of American Idol. The tragedy of it all.
How about phones? When I was a kid, we has a rotary phone. It took six minutes to dial someone. Plus, it seemed like everybody’s numbers ended in a zero. If your fingers slipped on that all-but-impossible loop of glory, you had to start the whole process over. Long distance was so expensive, it was viewed as a special treat. When friends flew to a vacation down south, which was a very rare occurrence, we’d all be nervous about the safety of the “metal birds.” To let us know they had arrived unharmed, our pals would call us at a predetermined time, let the phone ring twice and then hang up. “Woohoo! Tom and Mary made it!” we’d yell in celebration. How silly does that seem now? Plan B was more hysterical. Tom would call collect and have the operator ask for Gertrude. “Sorry, wrong number,” we’d deceitfully reply, as thrilled about outsmarting Ma Bell as by our friends’ safe arrival. Party lines? Pay phones? Calling cards? They all seem antiquated in these days of phones that are smarter than we are. Almost everyone now carries a powerful minicomputer that allows him or her to reach anybody, anywhere, anytime at a reasonably low cost. These dynamic devices also often serve as cameras, daily planners, jukeboxes, video-game consoles and Internet portals and run a bunch of apps that I’ll never understand. We have the world in the palm of our hands - literally.
Think about all of this. Don’t take it for granted. It’s mind-boggling but true that the average Canadian lives a much better life than did the kings and queens of wealthy empires just decades ago. That’s decades, not centuries.
Harold Coffin, the late Associated Press columnist, noted: “Envy is the art of counting the other fellow’s blessings instead of counting your own.” It sounds corny, but most of the people I’ve known who are adept at living within their means don’t make that mistake. They have perspective and fully grasp how lucky they are to be right here, right now. From that knowledge flows gratitude. Obviously, people who are truly thankful for what they do have are less likely to focus on what they don’t have. That goes a long way towards controlling spending.
Cicero had some great thoughts of the importance of gratitude and perspective, yet the most insightful line on the subject comes not from the Roman philosopher, but from one of my Mom’s favorites, 1950s actress and singer Doris Day: “Gratitude is riches. Complaint is poverty.”
That’s my all-time favorite financial quote.
- David Chilton
The Wealthy Barber Returns"
- David Chilton