Way back in college, I took an economics class as part of my business degree. Other than the basics about economics that I already knew, I remember exactly ONE thing from that class, and it is the most random piece of that curriculum you could imagine. It was so random it would be like taking American History and the only thing you remember was that George Washington never had any biological children (true story.)
The “thing” I remember is something called the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility, and in a nutshell, it basically states that you, the consumer, have diminishing satisfaction with something the more it is consumed. For example, say you buy an ice cream cone and you start licking it. The first lick is the “Sweet Jesus, that’s better than sex” lick, the middle is the “This is still quite satisfying” lick, and by the time you get to the end of the cone, you are saying, “I’m good on ice cream for a while.”
This same law applies to anything we “consume.” If you sit down to binge watch Honey Boo Boo, your satisfaction from each episode diminishes the more you consume. If you buy a new pair of shoes, and then you buy twenty more for some reason, each one produces slightly less satisfaction than the one before it. It’s a fascinating law of economics to me, and it applies to almost all aspects of our lives. Lives that, let’s be honest, are plagued by overconsumption.
Diminishing marginal utility does not explain why depression will become the SECOND most prevalent medical condition in the world by next year, and it does not explain why suicide rates are 60% higher than they were fifty years ago, but it can be used to help explain why we are inherently an incredibly selfish people. And I contend that selfishness is THE reason why people hate themselves more than ever before. Here, I’ll prove it. Or at least try to.
The Diminishing Marginal Utility of People
A few weeks ago, I got a really good mid-year review at work. It was probably my best review in my six years of teaching high school. This made me proud, happy, satisfied, whatever. It affected ME in a positive way. I was rather proud of myself.
But that’s where the diminishing marginal utility of people began.
I told my wife that night. “That’s great, dear.” She probably doesn’t even remember it. We have two kids under three years old. There’s a chance she was only robotically replying to anything I could have said. But let’s be honest. As long as I stay employed, she doesn’t really care. And I don’t blame her. I’m not all that interesting. Except to myself. And that’s the point I’m trying to make.
Beyond her, I could’ve told my daughter, but she would’ve probably said, “Congrats” while typing a text to one of her friends. I actually did tell a couple of coworkers, but they seemed about as interested as if I’d said, “Would you like an empty soup can?”
The point is that the first bit of “consumption” was mine, and it was meaningful to me. Every single ring from that point outward (refer to target in above picture) cared a little less and a little less and a little less until it wasn’t worth talking about anymore. The further the proximity or closeness to me, the less people cared. Makes sense, right?
Here’s the crude little picture again of what this might look like for pretty much any and all humans. It’s the same one that led the article.
The rings of the bullseye are not necessarily static, but the center is the same for everybody. YOU are the center of your world, right? The same thing goes for nine billion people on the planet. From that point outward, the rings can change, but only so much. For instance, if my wife bought a new pair of “super cute” shoes, there is a chance she may glow for a week (not really, it’s just an example.) I am technically the closest person to her, but I really couldn’t care less if she wore cow patties on her feet. Her sisters and mom might actually be on the ring closest to her for a topic on super cute shoes. I would move outward, but I would still care more than, say, a hobo. I would at least care if she had shoes. And feet.
It works this way for anybody and anything. If a breakout singer won a Grammy, it matters to her more than anybody else. The pride and joy will consume her for days, weeks, who knows. Her spouse or boyfriend will be proud, but a little less so. He’ll be looking at new SUV’s and bong pipes the next day. Her mom and dad will be proud of their little angel, but they still have the chronic knee pain, the skin-ripping psoriasis, and the Martins are coming for dinner Friday night. Her manager will pretend to care, but really he just cares about the money. Finally, her fans care, but she is one bad choice / song / boyfriend / social media post away from obscurity. Ultimately, that Grammy matters to HER ten times more than the next closest person.
Or consider a person who just found out they had cancer. It affects that person the most, obviously, but it affects the spouse, parents, and children slightly less. It’s still a heavy, heavy burden for them, but it’s not THEIR lives that are possibly ending. The next ring might be cousins, close friends or coworkers, and maybe their preacher. They care slightly less. Still sad, but it doesn’t even affect the trajectory of their lives should the person die. The next ring are the acquaintances, the Facebook friends, their favorite teller at the bank, etc. They care slightly less. This continues until you get to the people that have never even heard of you. They simply find it unfortunate that a person has cancer.
This is the diminishing marginal utility of people. The reason this makes people depressed and suicidal is because human beings are the most selfish biological substances on the planet. Each and every person has their own world that revolves around them – a world that cares progressively less the further away they are from the center – and only the rare few are truly capable of caring about anything outside of their own selfish little circle (and maybe two rings out from center.) In turn, that means that the majority of humans are unable to express much more than a feigned semblance of care towards anybody other than themselves. And that means they should not expect much more than that from others. But we all do.
The speed of life today versus fifty years ago is like comparing a sloth and a Lear jet. There is so much to consume, and each “product” we consume goes by so fast, that we struggle to remove ourselves and our empathy towards other people from our little “circle of consumption.” Unfortunately for those of us with depressive tendencies, that means everybody that makes up the rings of our bullseye has their own little circle from which they struggle to remove themselves, too. The fact that we’re all stuck in our little selfish circles means we’re all getting a little lonelier by the day. This is not going to end well.
In my opinion, the world today is simply not reacting well to the diminishing marginal utility of people. They have become so selfish – even those that don’t think they are – that they cannot accept the belittling fact that others do not care about their little circle as much as they do, and people are fighting back against this seemingly illogical oversight, even if it means lying, stealing, cheating, attempting to be someone they’re not, or bullying others to fill their little circle with all the shiny “stuff” that will make people ooo and aahhh over them.
And when they get the “stuff,” they find it necessary to make sure everybody cares about those things that are important to them, no matter how unscrupulous they must be about it and no matter how many people they piss off, belittle, bully, deceive, or destroy in the process. And sometimes (perhaps MOST of the time) they don’t even mean to do that. But think about what they put on social media. All the shiny stuff. They certainly don’t display all the stuff that’s not.
And here’s the kicker. Since it is getting harder and harder to get people on your outer rings to care about you, the only logical choice is to get MORE stuff for them to care about, so you consume more stuff, and this overconsumption actually makes you care less about that stuff you already own, not to mention the growing inability to care about anybody or anything outside your circle.
So this means that we each suffer from the economic definition of diminishing marginal utility because all of our “stuff” satisfies us less and less the more we get, and we also suffer from the diminishing marginal utility of people because those people along our bullseye rings are doing the same damn thing we are, trying to get enough stuff where people care about them and having so much stuff that they are unable to care about anything outside their circle. And when I say “stuff,” I’m not just talking about tangible goods. I’m talking about the full tally sheet of “stuff” requirements to survive in this world today: social media friends, social media followers, money (or the perception of it,) attractiveness, clothes, cars, the right job, all the newest celeb gossip, sunglasses, whatever.
Whatever it is we have, we just need more because we have more people to impress. And about ninety percent of those people are just avatars.
So if we’re ALL trying to over-consume in order to win the acclaim of others, and our satisfaction with our own “stuff” is diminished, we quite simply have no time to give a damn about those closest to us because we’re trying so hard to learn how to care about ourselves and our stuff. So not only are we unable to become satisfied by our own stuff, we can’t summon the ability to step away from it long enough – and with enough sincerity towards our fellow man – to give a damn about them at all. Even if it’s family. The irony of that is actually quite sad. We have more stuff, more people, and more stimuli, and yet we’re getting lonelier by the day.
People have always suffered depression and suicidal thoughts, but it just seems so much more selfish now. Perhaps it always has been – mental illness, bad luck, poor choices, bullying, boredom, etc. contribute, too, of course – but the technology in our lives means the consumption we readily accept is becoming so overwhelming that it is actually pretty hard NOT to allow it to consume our very souls. And if our soul is consumed, what can become of it?
An Addiction to Self
I know a few things about addiction, and since I suffered it for twenty years (and still do to some extent,) I’m actually kind of a professional. To me, an addict is the original entry into the oxymoronic category of being “addicted to themselves.” Look at all the ways they fill every nook and cranny of that category.
They need a daily fix (or frequent fixes throughout the day) of whatever it is they are addicted to, be it alcohol, tobacco, drugs, porn, gambling, whatever. This means they are actually addicted to satiating themselves in spite of whatever stands in their way.
They will spend the family’s money on themselves, food on the table be damned.
They will find any and every excuse to spend their time in active participation with their addiction, work or family time be damned.
They plan their day around their addictive activities, and will change the plans of themselves, their families, or anybody else in order to satisfy their addiction.
Addiction is the original “addiction to self,” but what we’re seeing today with “normal” people is exactly the same thing. It’s obvious to everybody why addicts are depressed and suicidal. So doesn’t it make sense that the people in this world showing the most severe signs of “self addiction” are also depressed and suicidal?
It’s a complete contradiction – how can a person addicted to themself suffer from depression or suicidal tendencies – but it makes total sense. Just because you are addicted to yourself does not mean that you LOVE yourself. What it means is that you are filling your life with more and more stuff in order to find that “thing” that’ll make you love yourself, but what is actually happening is that your little circle in the middle of your bullseye is growing very high walls because of all the stuff consuming you.
You’re actually CREATING the diminishing marginal utility for yourself and for those who might try to care about you.
Think about this. If each ring going outward from your center cares a little less and a little less about you, and you’re giving them nothing of any real substance to care about, you’re actually slowly giving them NOTHING to care about. In turn, the overconsumption in your own life leaves no time or mental energy to care about those people in the rings around you, and the more you consume, the less ability you have to care.
So you become completed addicted to self, nobody really cares about you, and you don’t really care about anybody else. How could you NOT be lonely, depressed, and suicidal?
What the Future Holds
The things inside my little circle are not all that plentiful, and I can’t yet determine if that’s okay with me. In many ways, I’m basically starting over at forty years old. My wife and three kids are in my circle. My job is in there. My writing hobby is in there. Keeping a neat house and yard is in there. Watching and following sports is in there. Wasting away any free time on Facebook is in there. A love of food is in there. But that’s really about it.
And honestly, with everything that’s in there now, I’m not spread too thin. I could add more stuff. I actually WANT to add more stuff. But I’m not all that addicted to myself. Well, not anymore. I’m almost at two years sober. In many, many ways, my bullseye got a lot bigger and it gained a couple of rings.
But think about our young people. And this is my biggest reason for this theory. I know addiction and I know young people. I see them every day, and I completely get it. They are being trained up in a world of overconsumption, and following the crowd is not only natural, it’s almost mandatory. This bothers me a lot because I see a generation who is going to grow up so secluded in their walled off circle that they are going to turn to alcohol, drugs, opioids, sex, and other such destructive behavior to fill the satisfaction void that nothing else could. I honestly think we’re going to have a constant linear progression of addiction in this country – and perhaps around the world – because the population will be more and more incapable of caring about anything outside their little bubbles.
What’s worse is that social media means they are intimately aware of ALL the stuff in HUNDREDS of people’s selfish little circles, and they are forced to constantly compare themselves against the world. They don’t truly care about anything in anybody else’s little circles, but they are very intimately AWARE of all of it. And because of that, they can never be good enough because there is ALWAYS going to be somebody a click away who is better than them at literally everything.
Think about this. All the people that a young person “follows” only puts their very best online. They put the best smile, the best outfit, the best vacation, the best successes. They don’t put the crap. Our young people are seeing only the best of their “friends.” They don’t see the nasty, rank stuff that we all hide away. They don’t see the snot, the shit, the blood, and the metaphorical vomit that everybody has and everybody hides.
I sincerely hope I’m wrong about this, and it FEELS wrong, but it does not feel incorrect. Just look at your life or a few people around you. Especially take a moment to try to look at somebody between the ages of 15 and 25. They have the perfect storm of outside catalysts that can and will drive their innate mental fortitude to the brink of collapse.
They have parents who are becoming technology addicts themselves and allowing that addiction to take away time from their children. And we’re ALL guilty. From the child’s standpoint, that’s the first step towards a very unfair loneliness.
They are wired by two or three years old to a combination of television, tablets, computers, video games, and phones given to them because they are cheap, fabulous babysitters.
They have their own phone by twelve years old. And so do all of their friends. Together they ARE together, but they are exposed and exposing themselves to a world that seeks and gives instant approval or criticism, and you don’t want to be on the wrong end of the criticism.
This is about the time when they unknowingly are exposed to the diminishing marginal utility of people. They don’t have anybody in their lives – even their own parents and siblings – who give them the attention and care that can only be described as fuel for the human spirit. Parents have gotten so good at this that they can even watch and record their child play a sport…. And stay glued to social media between pictures and videos. But are we giving them the kind of attention our parents gave us? In most cases, hell no. We’re consuming as much as they are and they’re becoming the victims.
By the time young people get to the third or fourth ring of their diminishing marginal utility bullseye, there is, in many cases, simply nobody there, and it’s not because they are not physically there. Our young people have simply learned that those people don’t respond to them or give them the time of day because they are unable to help them feel better about themselves and their own little bubbles.
Do you remember growing up and you knew you had a sleepover Saturday night at your house and you could barely contain your excitement all week? You acted like this because you knew that the two of your were going to have a blast together. And this was MUCH more fun than you could ever have at your house alone because half of the fun was in being sort of the “king” of your house. You got to show off the toys or show your friend the new trails you discovered in the woods. YOU were important. That first ring outside of your inner circle was suddenly your friend’s ring alone and you felt important because your friend had this innocent adolescence that needed no approval.
Young people today are exposed to people all day long, in person and on their phones, and yet they appear very lonely. I see them every day. Imagine life in twenty years when technology and automation even take away the drive thru person at McDonald’s. Who knows, teachers might even be obsolete. A computer is a hell of lot cheaper than me. If teachers are doing it right, however, we don’t just teach a curriculum, we model what healthy, positive, uplifting relationships should look like. But eventually, that might not matter.
But people matter in our lives as adults. Our rings of people that flow out from our center care less than they used to because they care more about their own “stuff.” We owe our young people our permission (or our demand) to free themselves from an online world that has no capacity or desire to treat their addiction before it may be too late.
I think about my teenage daughter a whole, whole lot, and I pray she never experiences addiction the way her daddy did. But I also refuse to take away technology altogether. That’s just illogical now. But I also know she has an INCREDIBLE bullseye, and she’s a rarity when it comes to caring about all the people on her bullseye as much as they care about her.
Honestly, I’m far more guilty than her of walling myself up in my own little bubble for twenty years. I’m guilty of taking time away from my kids when I’m exhausted and I just want to chill and play on my phone or computer. I’m addicted to it. My guess is that in many ways, you are, too. Now imagine the level of addiction for our young people that have lived in this new, wired, uncaring world their ENTIRE lives. Addiction to the selfishness that will eventually lead to an epidemic of addiction and depression is almost their destiny.
You know what the biggest takeaway for me has been in writing this? I can pinpoint almost ALL of the things young people need: tough but fair parents, quality time with parents, time outside, time spent in service to others, exercise, work ethic, a good, healthy diet, allowing them to fail, chores, encouragement, love, making them visit that second or third ring of their bullseye (grandma,) and maybe even spending some time every day acknowledging and praying to a higher power. There are no doubt more, but if our young people did all of that, we’d be raising some damn good kids.
But look what’s happening. All that stuff I listed above that our young people NEED? We’re perfectly content if they don’t get it. As long as they’re happy, right? So what happens when they’re not, and we’ve given them no foundation to find out where they went wrong or how to fix it?
It begs the question. If the diminishing marginal utility of people says that people care about you less and less the further out we go, why are the parents – seemingly in that ring closest to our babies – proving that we don’t really care about our kids enough to give them the things we know they need? Are we approving of their eventual depression and possible suicide? It begs the question, that’s all I’m saying.