The Stock Market of Life: It Has Its Ups and Downs but Trends Upwards
Life is getting more grim, right? Climate change, fascism, a global pandemic, social unrest, terrorism, potential wars of the cold, nuclear, and civil kind, flattening of lifespans and homeownership levels…it seems like every day there is a reason to be pessimistic. But of course that’s absolutely absurd to think that’s an objective assessment. The list can go on and on as to how life is better in almost every way from the way it was hundreds of years ago: reduced infant mortality rates, longer lifespans, better quality of life, more rights and freedoms, lower crime rates, higher rates of education, less work required to meet basic needs, and greater health and safety than ever before. So why does everyone think the world is going to hell in a hand basket? There are a multitude of reasons:
- Life Will Always Have Ups and Downs – The stock market has averaged double-digit growth over the last 100 years or so, but when you look at it day to day, you’ll think it’s chaotic and full of uncertainty. There’s a reason why many people invest in a retirement fund, exchange-traded fund, or mutual fund and then just forget about it: they get the benefits of the upward trend and minimize the chaos and stress of the day-to-day ups and downs. Unfortunately, in real life, people act like day traders and respond to every up and down. Thus, it seems like life is a rollercoaster with plenty of downs when it continues to get better overall.
- As Life Gets Better, People Become More Sensitive – This is an interesting one, as life can get much better but seem to be getting worse. Whereas atrocities such as genocide, slavery, and conquests were common centuries ago, they are much rarer today. That said, when someone lives a comfortable life, the slightest discomfort is unacceptable. My favorite example is when I have had coworkers in the past who traveled enter and leave a hotel because it didn’t meet their standards. Now, I get how maybe cheaper hotels might have that issue, but these were the mid- to upper-tiered hotels where everything from the sheets to the facilities were all high-quality. So I can’t possibly fathom what could’ve been wrong that would make someone cancel their entire reservation—e.g., poor room placement? too close to the ice machine?—it was apparently enough of a transgression to be worthy of such disdain from these upper-class individuals. I know that it’s all relative, but how good is your life when that is your biggest problem?
- Nostalgia and (Resistance to) Change – As people get older, they have their traditions, childhood memories, and a nostalgia for familiar, beloved things they enjoyed during simpler times. As the future changes away from those traditions/norms and life gets more complex, it can seem like things are getting worse when really you are just bearing the burdens that your parents had that you didn’t when you were living your care-free childhood. Similarly, people are at risk of becoming more set in their ways as they get older and holding a lifetime of baggage, so it might seem that things have gotten worse and worse as change occurs and this lifetime of challenges accumulates.
- People Are Loss-Averse, and Bad Memories Stick – Many, many economics papers have been written on how people feel worse about a loss than they feel good about a gain. Additionally, traumatic memories cause PTSD and other problems that can stick with you for a long time. As a result, people remember and feel losses more and try to avoid them as much as possible. But, since life is a series of ups and downs, those “downs” can seem to weigh much more than the “ups” in terms of overall impact on your life. Therefore, things will seem to be getting worse and worse as the downs pile up.
- Confirmation Bias – As soon as you believe that things might be getting worse, you then begin to look for evidence to support your belief and stop looking at/for contradictory evidence. Any time someone tries to argue with you, the, “Yeah, but…” response comes out of a holster and you start firing off reasons to justify your dissatisfaction. You end up arguing for your misery, your limitations, and your pessimism to the point where you almost can’t and won’t get rid of it.
- Adaptation and Memory Refreshes – Despite all of the talk about people being resistant to change, once the change is made, it becomes the only way that it ever was. You can see this in your daily life. You might have your current password or key code memorized; can you remember your password or code three or four codes ago? Unless you have a system where you can logically work back from your current one to it (which is cheating in this exercise), probably not. Why? Because your mind and body adapts more quickly than people give it credit for, and it affects your memories, your preferences, your habits, and your future expectations. That can be something as simple as forgetting scan lines on old CRT TVs since LCD/LED screens have been around for decades now to being upset when your current smart phone doesn’t pull up a site in 2 seconds when it used to take 30 seconds just to open the app. Once your body and mind adapt, you have now reached a new set point and get upset when things don’t meet that. So you might appreciate some of the niceties you have today that you didn’t have before, you immediately become used to them and forget what it was like to not have them; when you experience a setback, the frustration comes more quickly (a callback to people getting more sensitive mentioned above).
- Pain Avoidance Is not Felt – For the first time in my life, I dropped my key in my car the other day, and it automatically locked when I shut the door. Honestly, I’m not sure how that happened, as I never recall it locking as soon as the door shut. My greatest fear about keys finally happened: I was locked out. I was miles from civilization and barely had cell phone reception. It could take hours for someone to come. It’d cost a good bit of money. All of this, and it was all my fault. I took a deep breath, and then I remembered that my car had an internet connection and that my smart phone app could unlock the car remotely. Fortunately, my phone was in my pocket and not also in the car. I logged into the app, hit the button, and BOOM! I was back in business. The relief I felt of avoiding being stranded in the middle of nowhere hoping that I could find a locksmith has stuck with me forever. I knew how bad it would’ve been in the past. But this event is rare: most avoided inconveniences or disasters are taken for granted. Does your car’s safety features prevent you from getting into an accident? Oh, phew—for about 2 minutes before you get to the next thing on your schedule. Do you get sick less because of vaccines and other innovations in health and sanitation? Well, you can’t feel illnesses you never get. So your life is so good that you simply get upset whenever it’s bad and don’t notice how much better it is than it would’ve been otherwise.
This list could probably go on for a while. Despite all of these reasons for life not seeming to get better and instead seeming to get worse, it is getting better. Yes, like the stock market, you see ups and downs and big gains and crashes. But the long-term evidence is there: life gets better, just like the stock market has grown on average double-digits every year. If you think your life, society, or the world is getting so much worse, you’re not looking at the good things, you’re watching too much sensationalized, biased news, or you’re simply selectively sifting and shaping your perception and memories to fit your beliefs.
In short, stop all of that. Life is getting better. If you see yours get worse for a while, it will get better. I mean, we’re so close to eliminating the overwhelming majority of things in the world that cause harm, pain, and discomfort that the biggest issues in this world are self-inflicted (e.g., caused by stress, diet, sedentary behavior, or bad habits like alcohol or tobacco). That’s amazing. That means that your life will get better, and you control more and more of your life to ensure that you are as happy and fulfilled as possible. Take a moment to appreciate that, get some perspective, and remember this whenever you experience a down period so that you can keep pushing forward and trending upward. If you’re like everyone else—and you likely are since we’re all human—your life is trending upwards (or can be trending upwards if you keep working on it) and you just need to invest in yourself and your life and stop looking so much at the “stock ticker” that is day-to-day life.