A recent study on a species of birds, discussed on NPR, suggested that when one generation has abundant resources available for their young, the next generation, lacks work ethic.  Is this a matter of parenting style?  Doesn’t seem to be.  Psychologist Jean Twenge, who authored Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable than Ever Before, stated that “when you are born has more of an influence over your personality than your family.”  While this statement is debatable, it does speak to some recent trends in our society.

Another psychologist, Barry Schwartz, has focused on two specific kinds of personalities: “maximizers” and “satisficers.”  Maximizers are those who research all the options before making a decision.  Whether they are looking for the “right” college, car, or spouse, they have to explore all the options before making their informed decision.  Satisficers survey only a few options, or only one, before moving forward.  One might think that the maximizer would be the person that ultimately feels happy with his or her decision.  Interestingly, however, the maximizer is more likely to experience discontent and question that decision, possibly transferring, trading in, or divorcing.  In contrast, the satisficer tends to be satisfied with his or her decision over the long haul.

For many of us in our 30’s and 40’s, our grandparents’ generation figured out a path early on.  They got on a career track early, married young, and never made changes.  Life had its ups and downs, but overall they were content and they stayed on that path- perhaps in part because they felt as though they had to.  And so the societal norm was to be a satisficer.  Our parents’ generation started divorcing much more frequently, switching careers, exploring options.  As a society, we began to value being able to maximize more than ever.

This became a cultural norm.  We came to value having access to anything we wanted.  And when we didn’t have the financial means, there was always credit!  This allowed for people to engage in a “right of passage” that our grandparents’ generation couldn’t fathom… we could “find ourselves.”  Put differently, we could maximize until our heart’s delight.  And it seemed that our hearts should be delighted, right?

Another interesting trend is the increase in rates of depression.  Each generation has seen exponential rises in depression.  Schwartz has indicated that this trend is no coincidence; it is the product of a maximizer’s culture.  Whether through retail therapy or other means, we also have a culture that looks for quick fixes…  Feel sad?  Take a pill.  Who needs therapy?  (I’m sure readers can sense my therapist’s bias and cynicism).  But, with the recent economic crash, our society is becoming more pragmatic.  Enjoying life on credit is becoming a thing of the past.  There are fewer opportunities for finding ourselves.  Or are there?

A little hardship can force us to be satisficers.  By having to make decisions and having to move forward with them, our society may experience a shift.  It may start to feel more like Granny and Grampa’s day.  And maybe- we’ll be happier for it.

Article published in Montana’s Healthy Living, 2008