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.)