Frames of Reference – Why Smart People Feel Stupid, Money Buys Happiness, and You Will Never Feel Truly Satisfied



A recent Invisibilia episode discusses frames of reference—the frames we use to interpret our world—and how our own frame of reference can clash with that of others, even our own family. For immigrants and their children, differences in culture, generation, class, and historical context lead to dramatically different frames of reference—after all what is a little bullying in school compared to the Holocaust. My own non-immigrant father’s stories of waking up at 5am to milk the cows before going to school made me grateful for my upper-middle class suburban life and guilty if I messed up in school.

But frames of reference extend far past inter-generational conflict, in this blog-post I’ll discuss a number of psychological phenomena and how they relate to frames of reference: Why do so many smart people feel stupid? Can money by happiness? And how does any of this relate back to my normal life?

Azis Ansari also recently meditated on the first generation American experience and how foreign his life as an entertainer is to his parents frame of reference.

Upward Comparisons

We all have our own frame of reference, and it evolves throughout our lives. For example, if you do well in high school and get into the college of your dreams, you may feel smart and accomplished. (Hurray!) But once there, you stop comparing yourself to your high school peers—your frame of reference has changed. Now you compare yourself to your college peers and, on average, compared to your college peers, you will be just that: average. You are still the same just-as-smart, just-as-accomplished person that you were in high school but your frame of reference has shifted. This can be a sobering and painful experience, especially if you have incorporated academic achievement or intelligence into your identity and sense of self-worth.


This phenomenon, shifting the frame against which we judge ourselves, is a component of social comparison theory first proposed by the psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954. In the absence of objective criteria, we compare ourselves to others–usually people we find similar to ourselves–to measure our own success. We use similar comparisons to measure other nebulous concepts such as our quality of life and our sense of justice and injustice.

Some have posited that in the modern era this problem is exacerbated by social media. We no longer compare the reality of our lives to the reality of our peers, but instead we compare our real lives to the carefully manicured social media of our peers, as illustrated in this great wait but why article.


The Hedonic Treadmill



A related phenomenon is the hedonic treadmill. We adjust our baseline to creature-comforts remarkably quickly, and major life events we dream of like that promotion, getting married, winning the lottery, may give us short bursts of pleasure but have remarkably little-impact on our long-term happiness. (Likewise, seemingly life-ruining traumatic events like losing a leg have less affect on our mood than we expect—people are resilient creatures!) On a cognitive level this can be explained by the fact that these events not only change our life, but also simultaneously change the frames of reference to which we compare our lives. (On a more basal non-cognitive level, processes are probably occurring that resemble tolerance to a drug’s euphoric effects.)

While this hedonic treadmill may seem like a cruel joke, it’s a necessary evil. It is the mechanism through which the squirrel with one nut, is motivated to seek another. Humans, like every other species needs a sliding-scale of desire so we can perform appropriately in times of feast or famine. But, our species has taken it to a new extreme–compared to a hundred years ago we are living the lives of kings. Hell, thirty years ago, owning a cellphone would’ve been a dream, but now we take it for granted, as beautifully but vulgarly described by Louis CK:


This sliding-scale of desire and satisfaction, this constantly readjusting frame of reference, is necessary for progress to continue. Dissatisfaction keeps us motivated, and prevents us from luxuriating in the affluence our age affords us.

We’ve evolved this motivational system through and for sexual reproduction, which also explains why we compare ourselves to our peers—they are our sexual competition. But remember, ultimately your genes don’t compare about your happiness or satisfaction just reproduction—we are just strange sentient apes who happen to have grown self-aware and concepts like happiness are coincidental a by-products.

meme2Choosing our frame of reference

Going back to the Invisibilia episode for a moment, Hasan Minhaj feels like his frame of reference is somewhere in between the cushy modern American frame of reference and his Indian father’s hedonistically-simpler frame—where eating a mango can lead to bliss. When Alix Spiegel asks him, if he could choose a frame of reference—the modern American or his fathers—which would he choose? His father’s Hasan says without hesitation.

But, perhaps that is a selfish choice Alix posits, perhaps the updated frame of reference is not only the price of progress, but also the motivation for further progress. The same way the squirrel with one nut longs for the second, after we have fixed large injustices, we will feel the pain from relatively minor injustices, and it motivates us to fix them. We fix them so that we, and future generations, will no longer have to deal with them, but as we make progress inevitably we will change the frames of reference for future generations and this process will continue.

Going back to the hypothetical of choosing frames, is it truly hypothetical, or can we choose our frame of reference? Does knowing a problem is insignificant to another frame of reference make it hurt any less? Can we will our frame of reference to change?

Thinking alone is probably not enough to change a frame of reference. Rational cognitive understanding alone rarely affects our emotional reactions. But maybe, we can change our frame of reference if we do it very intentionally, in a manner similar to cognitive behavioral therapy. (I’m curious if a therapy like this already exists—if you know of something please leave a comment!)

Perhaps we can change our frame of reference by changing our environment. Cynically, I wonder if the joy people feel from volunteering isn’t the often-touted pleasure of giving, but rather the effect that those in need has on our frame of reference and makes us feel better by comparison. For a year, I volunteered once a week at a homeless shelter for drug addicts in Boston, and every time I walked home from a shift I would feel profoundly grateful for my life.

Does the hedonic treadmill mean everything is truly relative? Can money buy happiness? What about life satisfaction?

We should also be careful not to take the concept of the hedonic treadmill to the extreme—material things and income do matter. A 2015 study by Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahneman (of Thinking, Fast and Slow fame), shows there is a connection between emotional well-being and income but only up to a certain point. Using data from a gallop poll of 1000 americans, they found after an income of $75,000, additional income hand little or no affect on measures of emotional well-being, as gauged by questions about recent happiness, sadness, and stress.


However, the exact question you ask makes a difference. If instead you look at self-reported life-satisfaction, based on asking people if their current life situation is the worst they can imagine or the best they can imagine an almost-linear relationship emerges:


Is a Wealthy Country a Satisfied Country?

So those are the results by comparing the income of Americans, but what about comparing populations. Studies across nations are difficult to control because of differences in language and culture, so results should be taken with an extra grain of salt, but these data seem pretty clear. A logarithmic trend emerges between the average income and average life satisfaction in different countries:


But, if we look at one society over time, this trend disappears:


Why is this the case? Why does a wealth of a country relative to other countries affect life satisfaction, but increasing wealth over time does not? Perhaps because of our frames of reference!

In this globalized age, perhaps part of our happiness and life satisfaction is relative not just to people in our own country, but also our perception of how we are doing relative to the res of the world. So, it is not the absolute wealth that brings life satisfaction to wealthy countries, but the differences in wealth between countries. Perhaps if in the above graph, the line for the United States GDP had stayed flat, but it was increasing through out the rest of the world, self-reported happiness and life-satisfaction would have decreased as the US fell behind other countries in the world economy.

How should we think about frames of reference in our daily lives? What does science say about how we can achieve happiness?

Frames of reference give us a lot to think about, but ultimately should it affect how we live our lives? As interesting as they are, it’s always hard to take the final step and find a solid take-away from psychological studies and behavioral economic findings. (In fact, I think more studies should be performed on just this—taking these findings and developing rational programs to try to influence people’s feelings of happiness and life satisfaction.)

For hundreds of years capitalism and the American dream have urged us to strive for more wealth—through hard work we can join the upper strata and finally be happy. For thousands spiritual practices have taught that such desires are also the source of pain and misery and encouraged us to change our frames of reference.


In my own life I strive for balance, carefully trying to keep my toes on the work-life balance beam, focusing on achieving my future goals but in a sustainable way where I am happy or content as I do so. Delaying all gratification for future rewards may lead to disappointment—either from failing to achieve your goals or achieving them but realizing that because of the hedonic treadmill, you still aren’t happy, and perhaps you’ve been ignoring your real problems by focusing solely on your dreams. Likewise, I have a fear that if I live my life only for my current happiness I may end up finding myself trapped in the future, or look back on my life as shallow or wasted.

Often self-help advice includes monitoring ones goals—reminding yourself every day of what you want to accomplish as motivation—but maybe we should monitor not only our goals but our frames. Perhaps this is the benefit of customs and habits like saying what we are grateful for in our lives, which has been scientifically shown to make us happy.

Scientific studies offer a number of habits for happiness in addition to graditude: mindful meditation, exercise, healthy diet, altruism, inter-personal connections, and meaning beyond ourselves. Personally, I find these activities hard to stick with—I’ve found really deep calm relaxing pleasure while and after meditating—but paradoxically, despite this, the next day I have no drive to meditate. Again, evolution hasn’t shaped us to maximize happiness, but rather to maximize reproduction and therefore to be perpetually unsatisfied.


Ultimately, what awareness of frame of reference can give us is more compassion for others. And maybe through increased connections with others we will find more happiness and life satisfaction ourselves. Perhaps when the next generation is irked by problems we can’t understand, we can realize it is due to our different frames of reference, and we can meet them half-way and find compassion for them. Though, with two thirds of people predicting todays youth will have a worse life than their parents generation, perhaps the next generation will be fed up with our spoiled frame of reference, and it will be us begging them for compassion.

Perhaps we can also use our knowledge about frames of reference, to work to deliberately shape the next generation’s frame of reference in a way that they can find more happiness and fulfillment throughout their life… by reinstating child labor, and locking all of them in factories and coal mines! Because, as frames of reference show, they’ll be so eternally grateful to us, when we finally free them.


Calvin and Hobbes (in case you’re a philistine and don’t already know this)

I do this for free out of the goodness of my heart (and an insatiable need for the approval of strangers), so if you liked this article (and I’m guessing you did unless you just scrolled straight to the bottom) please share it, or follow me to get notified about future articles. And if you didn’t like the article, write a comment if you please about why it was a piece of shit.


4 Responses to “Frames of Reference – Why Smart People Feel Stupid, Money Buys Happiness, and You Will Never Feel Truly Satisfied”

  1. 1 John Humkey

    No comments??? My God, it was amazing. I’ve wondered for years why poorer people seem to be more satisfied, and why rich (relatively speaking) kill themselves at a faster rate. “Frame of Reference” is the answer.
    And you’re about the fifth person to mention “Thinking Fast and Slow”. I’ve got to dig out the copy I bought, blow the dust off it and read it.
    I’m not sure you had an “answer” in there, (on how to “set” your Frame and increase happiness) but if not, you’re at least stabbing all around it.
    Thanks much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Yeah “Thinking, Fast and Slow” is a real tour de force.

      As for the income and suicide thing, I’ve heard the same thing, with the reasoning that less wealthy people externalize their problems. “I’m unhappy because I’m poor and the world is unfair.” But rich people with easy lives say, “My life is good, but still I’m not happy. What’s wrong with me.” I actually tried to briefly look this up while I wrote this article and it seemed muddier than that. Maybe I’ll do some more research and write a followup addressing this issue.


  2. 3 Jackie

    A good NLP practitioner can help change your frame of reference remarkably quickly. You can even train yourself to use their techniques on your own. It’s powerful stuff, just be careful with all the hokey information out there when doing broad google searches.


    • “Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is an approach to communication, personal development, and psychotherapy created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in California, United States in the 1970s. NLP has since been overwhelmingly discredited scientifically,[1][2] but continues to be marketed by some hypnotherapists and by some companies that organize seminars and workshops on management training for businesses.[3]” According to wiki. On the other hand placebo effects are especially real for this kinds of issues and if it works for you it works for you. These days most therapists are pretty holistic and draw from many different schools of therapy.


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