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A Response From The “Spoiled” Generation…

March 4th, 2009 · 14 Comments
Behavioral Econ · Happiness

Ok, I am guessing by now that most of you have seen the YouTube video of Louis CK on Conan O’ Brien, since it’s been spreading around the interwebs like crazy. Granted, Louis CK is first and foremost a comedian, but the tone of his schpiel is that he really has a point to make, albeit in a funny way.

The tag line that gets people is “Everything is amazing, and nobody is happy”, and Louis CK goes on to explain that the current generation of young people, or the “crappiest generation of spoiled idiots” as he puts it, takes what they have in terms of technology and lifestyle niceties for granted. (He does the “in my day we had rotary phones” bit, but stops shy of claiming to have walked to school 6 miles in the snow uphill both ways.) Now, he is probably correct in his assessment that this (My? I’m not sure whether I am young enough here to count in this) generation does take these developments for granted, but I find it very hard to believe that this is the first generation to be acting in this way.

Here’s why: Psychologists have known for a long time that a person’s overall happiness doesn’t improve directly with the acquisition of cool new stuff, achievement of goals, etc., but rather that people have to keep striving to maintain a constant level of happiness. They have coined this concept that of the hedonic treadmill, with the first part referring to happiness and the second implying that we are running, buying, achieving, whatever just to stay in place. Given that this term was coined back in 1971, and the concept has likely been around much longer than that, I find it hard to believe that this is a new pheomenon with the current generation of spoiled brats who can’t wait 4 seconds for a cell phone to make a connection.

So, to Louis CK: lay off (or at least be less directly insulting if you are trying to be funny)- you probably acted in the same way when the phone went from rotary to touch tone, or when color TV became popular, or whatever other new stuff your generation got to experience, and you just don’t think about it because you weren’t observing it from the outside. But I’m sure your parents will tell you if you ask. I am pretty sure that my parents implicitly understand the concept of the hedonic treadmill to the degree that they refuse to get on it…and that is why they still have a rotary phone. Not really, but they do have a super old school touch tone phone…and a vacuum tube television (with rabbit ears)…and a VCR…and for the record, they seem perfectly happy.

My favorite part of the Louis CK clip is when he recounts the guy on the plane being pissed off when the onboard WiFi goes out…it makes perfect sense if you consider the fact that people dislike losses more than they like gains (see Prospect Theory if you are feeling nerdy). The guy got a gain when it was announced that he could look at his online porn on the plane, but then he got used to it and that became the status quo. It’s not surprising then that the subsequent lack of cyberboobs would make him upset, since it is viewed by him as a loss…in fact, he is probably less happy than he was before he even knew about the possibility of the onboard internet access, even though he temporarily got access to something that he enjoyed. (Ew.)

Tags: Behavioral Econ · Happiness

14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 PeterM // Mar 7, 2009 at 9:21 am

    Being at least a generation older than you, I agree that all generations probably have whined. It seems part of the human condition. I’m just recalling my 1967 high school years, and the whining about the small crises of zits, the inability to procure the family car on the weekend, etc. And I grew up in a working class area, the politically famous Scranton, Pa.

    That said, there is a lot to the points he makes. When I find myself being irritated at some triviality I imagine myself living in some third world hovel, or running down the road being chased by the guy whose chicken I’ve just stolen. These terrible conditions are real and we need to remind ourselves constantly of the need to improve the human condition.

    Now getting off the preachy altar, the economic implication MAY be that many Americans are realizing right now that they can do without a lot of the objects and activities we spend money on. For example, automobiles last much longer than they used to (thanks to all the Japanese competition?) and if one has an older model car which still runs decently, one may seriously question whether now is the time to sink existing funds into the purchase of a new car. We (my wife is an economist) have put on the back burner looking for a larger home, wondering where we are on the Shiller housing curve. Projections are that the market will move down for 3 to 6 more years.

    This looks like a nice website and you have some of my fav econ writers on your blog roll.

  • 2 Jenn // Mar 7, 2009 at 10:16 am

    I just found your blog through a facebook ad? Cool title. You made me look.
    I didn’t see the Conan spot, but I just saw Louis CK at a charity event and I thought the routine was great, so I’m glad it’s been shared. Really who can complain about a little delay when you’re about to fly through the air like a greek god?

  • 3 VD // Mar 11, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    Your parent’s aren’t going to be so happy after June 12th, once the last terrestrial analog TV station goes dark. And once they get a taste of Comcast, they might just hop on the treadmill and never look back.

  • 4 econgirl // Mar 11, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    Funny you mention that. I had this conversation with them when I was visiting over the holidays, and not only are they refusing to get cable, they are refusing to get a new TV that can accept the digital signal directly. So as far as I can tell they will be one of the 12 or so households in the country that will be getting the converter box thing.

  • 5 judgeetox // Mar 11, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    Standing in a line at a checkout where a guy was having what seemed to be hundreds of old lottery tickets checked, a woman behind me became increasingly agitated (breathing down MY neck) she mutters on the old line about how ‘money isn’t going to buy happiness’ and here I am, standing in front of the most sad person in this line. And I’m thinking to myself….why do we need money to be happy? We can turn on the TV set and catch an episode of The Simpsons over 7 times a day if we wish.

    I agree (in a small way) with louis CK on this….human interaction itself and our general sense of community used to be enough to get a person through the day in a happy state. Sure, our technology makes happiness easier, and opens up new avenues for enjoyment, but it should be aside from the fulfillment we experience through contact with other people (even if it’s to gripe about nonsensical things). Treasure what you got, for soon you could be caught without it” — Jesus Rodriguez

  • 6 leftymarine // Mar 12, 2009 at 6:54 am

    “crappiest generation of spoiled idiots”…

    I’d love him to say that comment to my sisters and brothers whose boots are on the ground in Afghanistan, Iraq, and 100 other places that many people wouldn’t be able to find on a map. We can survive quite well without our interwebs and collections of data tubes or whatever.

    I know this isn’t really an economics comment, but oh well….

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