Sometimes I really feel my age when I tell my kids, “Back when I was your age, we used to __________” and fill this in with something about how I had it rougher as a kid than they do. Remember the grumpy old man skit by Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live? Well, I’m not THAT extreme, but I hear his voice in my head sometimes when I’m talking to my kids!
Who Has It Rough?
Now think about this – did your parents have it rougher growing up than you? Do you think your grandparents had it even rougher growing up than your parents? For most of us, each prior generation probably had it rougher than the one before. Going back even further, compared to the medieval days in Europe, almost all of us are MUCH better off! However, with so many young kids and teens with their smart phones, iPads, laptops with the endless games, videos, and music at their fingertips it’s difficult not to compare what they have now to our own meager choices that we had growing up. It seems like so many kids take these things for granted nowadays – that they seem entitled to all of these gadgets and choices.
So, is there a big problem with kids and entitlement now? Shouldn’t kids show a lot more gratitude about what they have than they do? Although one might argue that kids (and adults!) should be grateful about all of the things this world has to offer (from clean running water to smart phones), it takes a lot of effort to be grateful because of hedonic adaptation.
About Hedonic Adaptation
Humans are very adaptive creatures. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have survived. Hedonic adaptation, also known as the hedonic treadmill, describes the process by which we adapt to most positive and negative events relatively quickly and then return to our baseline (or “set point”) of happiness. Thus, aside from extreme cases, most positive and negative events don’t have much impact on our general mood over time. So, the happiness from graduating college, getting a new job, buying a car or house, winning a tennis tournament, winning the lottery, and so on fades quickly over time, and then we tend to return to our happiness set point. Likewise, the negative effects of a failing grade, losing a job, a breakup with a romantic partner, and so on fade over time as well.
Our level of happiness adapts to our situation because it enhances perception. When something in our perception goes above or below what we are accustomed to, it gets our attention. If we didn’t adapt to our surroundings and experiences, we wouldn’t know what to pay attention to. We pay attention to the unusual (above or below our standard) because it has a survival value.
Entitlement is a Form of Hedonic Adaptation
When we look at what kids are growing up with nowadays, we might want to judge them as “entitled.” However, mostly what is happening is hedonic adaptation. Kids, like ourselves, adapt to their surroundings, experiences, and what they are given. Part of us might want to judge them and finger wag about how they are taking all that they have for granted, but we really can’t blame them for this. We are all just made to adapt, and that’s what our kids are doing.
An Antidote for Entitlement?
I sincerely doubt that finger wagging, lecturing, and going all “grumpy old man” on our kids really helps them feel gratitude and appreciation for what they have. For that, we must start with ourselves. We can only control our own state of consciousness. Our kids are always watching us. If we want them to show more gratitude, we must show it ourselves. Kids won’t feel the need to become defensive or tune us out if they don’t feel like they are being criticized or lectured. WE can be the one to say, “Wow – I really appreciate how I was able to use my iPhone to listen to this great podcast and then go right to my favorite song !” We can do this with other things like having a car, AC, clean running water, good food to eat…you name it. When we can show our kids how much we appreciate what we have, they are more likely to learn how to appreciate what they have a little more too. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s probably the easiest and most effective way to counter the hedonic adaptation that we all experience. The best part? The practice of being more appreciative and grateful of what we have will make US feel happier too!