Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Reality and Perception

Peacock Shawl

Scott and I are finally pulling out of a round of one or the other of us being sick for the last few weeks. I could barely knit for a couple of days, though you wouldn't know it from the progress I have made on my shawl. I don't have much else to share with you. I have been planning my vegetable garden for the next year and selecting seeds to purchase. I have enjoyed watching some documentaries of people doing living history experiments, where they see what it is like, for example, to live on a Victorian farm. Watching that sort of thing certainly makes me grateful for my washing machine, for one. It is very interesting to see what people romanticize and how that compares to the realities of daily life.

This latter concept seems to be related to a couple of other things I have come across recently that have stuck in my mind. The following graph comes from an article that a friend shared a while ago about wealth distribution in the U.S., and how it is perceived by Americans. This reflected something I had heard on an earlier radio report.

What is most striking to me about this graph (besides, of course, what it points out about my own misperception) is how similar the views of people across the political spectrum and across the income spectrum really are. That is to say: the first section of the graph displays what the actual distribution of wealth in America is, and what percentage of American money is truly in the hands of the wealthiest individuals; the second section shows what different people estimate the distribution to be; and the third section shows what different people think that the ideal distribution should be. What strikes me is how closely grouped the individual lines are in the latter two categories. Political spin is constantly trying to portray everyone's views as wildly different, but these studies have shown that they really aren't. The difference between how much money the conservative person thinks people should have and what the liberal person thinks people should have is minuscule compared to the difference between what people actually have and what either thinks should be the case. Even the difference between what people who make less money or more money think is less than the difference between the reality and the perception. It's really a shame that political opposition is so strong, and that politics is so much about making the other guy look bad. If it weren't, perhaps we could be making progress on moving our reality towards our ideals.

Certainly, when it comes to making our ideals a reality, most of us feel hemmed in by our financial situation. I just read a very interesting paper titled, If Money Doesn't Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren't Spending It Right. This is a psychological publication from researchers at three universities, not just an op-ed piece. This piece addresses the strange relationship between money and happiness, and what the real and perceived links are.

"Wealthy people don’t just have better toys; they have better nutrition and better medical care, more free time and more meaningful labor—more of just about every ingredient in the recipe for a happy life. And yet, they aren’t that much happier than those who have less. If money can buy happiness, then why doesn’t it? "

It boils down to, "Money is an opportunity for happiness, but it is an opportunity that people routinely squander because the things they think will make them happy often don’t." Then, the paper goes on to describe what things are actually causing people to feel happier, and suggest how one can get the most happiness out of available resources.

"Drawing on empirical research, we propose eight principles designed to help consumers get more happiness for their money. Specifically, we suggest that consumers should
(1) buy more experiences and fewer material goods;
(2) use their money to benefit others rather than themselves;
(3) buy many small pleasures rather than fewer large ones;
(4) eschew extended warranties and other forms of overpriced insurance;
(5) delay consumption;
(6) consider how peripheral features of their purchases may affect their day-to-day lives;
(7) beware of comparison shopping;
and (8) pay close attention to the happiness of others."

Take a look at the article. I highly recommend it, and not just for what it says about money, but also what it says about things such as: what delaying gratification does to our perception and our choices, how we perceive negative events, or how focusing on the task at hand changes how we feel.

Now, when New Year's resolutions are still maintaining a full head of steam, or perhaps starting to become burdensome, it is an opportune moment to learn from this paper about how to shape our choices toward more positive outcomes.

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