Happiness Inflation

Inflation is a term that is usually applied to economics. Merriam-Webster defines inflation as, “a continuing rise in the general price level usually attributed to an increase in the volume of money and credit relative to available goods and services”. In short, inflation refers to the fact that, over time, you need more money to buy the same thing. These days, we pay $5 instead of $0.90 for the same gallon of gas.

However, it seems like more and more I’m seeing a different type of inflation. Let’s call it “happiness inflation”: it takes more “things” to buy the same level of happiness.

Yeah, yeah, so what’s new? Who doesn’t know that?

I know. It’s obvious, right? But like regular, economic inflation, you don’t really think about it all that often, because there’s nothing you can really do about it. Everybody knows gas costs more these days. We don’t dwell on it. We can’t bring down the price of gas, and it’s just a part of life, so on we go.

The important thing to remember is that paying $5 for gas doesn’t mean we are getting more gas. The same goes for happiness inflation; even though we are getting more things, we are still the same amount of happy.

I probably wouldn’t notice happiness inflation either, except for being a parent. It takes on a lot of different aspects when it comes to kids.

There’s present inflation. When we were younger we got a certain number of presents, and we were happy. Now, kids get 10 times that number of presents, and they are about the same amount of happy. It’s not one outfit, it’s 3 outfits. It’s not one playset, it’s the whole line. We feel embarrassed if we only got one book, or only spent $20, or if our present doesn’t have a built in computer chip.

In fact, as a parent you see a lot of birthday inflation in general. Think about birthday parties when you were a kid. Your aunts and uncles and cousins came over and maybe you had a cake. That’s it. But it was exciting, and you looked forward to it. You were happy. Now there are themes, and gift bags, and entertainers, and catering. It takes that much more for a 3 year old to be the same level of happy.

There’s candy inflation: getting 5 pieces of candy thrown to you at a parade isn’t sufficient. You have to have 500 pieces. Or a handful from each house at Halloween instead of one piece, or a full sized candy bar. You can’t have an ice cream cone in the summer as a nice treat, you have to have an ice cream cone every day, with a slice of pie on the side. But wait, you can’t just get an ice cream cone, it has to be dyed some kind of “fun” color, because, you know, ice cream cones just weren’t fun enough by themselves.

Just like economic inflation, it is impossible to fight. If I go to the gas station and say, “I only want $0.90 of gas,” I don’t get a gallon. Similarly, if I throw a birthday party and don’t give out gift bags, I don’t get the same level of happiness that we used to get before people gave out gift bags. Now I have to give the gift bags if I want to obtain a gallon of happiness.

The thing is, each person only sees what they are giving, but only the parents can see the big picture. Other people can’t see how out of control and over the top it is. They want to see a kid’s eyes light up when they hand them some jelly beans on Easter, not realizing that 5 other people gave them a handful already. Each person gives as many gifts or sweets or outfits individually as their own kids got total from everyone when they were little.

People just can’t seem to help themselves.

We’re not immune to this as parents. We want to make our kids as happy as anyone else does, probably more so. But I feel so trapped by the whole thing. Either we go along with it and contribute to the overall rise in inflation, or we deprive ourselves of the joy of making our kids happy, turning ourselves into “mean parents” who never give our kids anything. Just bow out and let everybody else get the satisfaction of seeing their faces light up. Because inflation is everywhere, and there’s so much on all sides, the only way to average it out is to never give anything.

Maybe it’s not the kids who are suffering from inflation, maybe it’s the adults. Maybe our tolerance for making a kid’s face light up has gone up over time. We need more and more “hits” to reach the same level of satisfaction, so we selfishly press that button as often as we can.

I can’t fight inflation. The only way to stem the tide is if everyone, everywhere, all at the same time, tackles the problem. Frankly, that’s not going to happen. All I can say is, look at the obese kids and the debt problems and the selfishness of the world and think about how you personally are contributing to it.

Maybe if we all did that a little more often, we could experience a little bit of “happiness deflation”. Trust me, it’s better than it sounds.

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