Over Christmas I became reacquainted with the parable of the Prodigal Son. It is a frequently told story from the New Testament, yet it so often provokes grumbles amongst its audience. And this muffled disapproval always concerns the father’s behaviour. Although everyone can understand the actions of the selfish but ultimately repentant title character, and one can also sympathise with his steadfast but ultimately resentful brother, the father’s response to the return of his lost-but-now-found son strikes many as disproportionate. The old man’s family situation is exactly the same at the end of the story as it was at the start, namely, he is a father with two sons at his side. However, he now has to live with the knowledge that one of the boys has squandered a large share of the family’s wealth on fast living. How can he be so overjoyed? Isn’t he worse off on balance?
I heard another, more contemporary story during the holidays that helped to cast some light on the biblical tale. This is because it provoked similar sentiments, just in the opposite direction. It concerned the regional director of a French retail financial services firm. He used to live in the French spa city of Vichy, and had responsibility for the firm’s activities in much of the central part of the country. In mid-2015, he finally got his desired promotion. In addition to a move to St Tropez and a significant increase in salary, his new responsibilities included some of the firm’s largest client accounts in cities such as Nice, Cannes, and Monte Carlo. His mood after just four months in the role, however, was less than joyous. “The job is going very well,” he confided, “but I think I liked Vichy better.” It took a little while before he revealed the real source of his disenchantment. “I never saw a Bentley in Vichy, but in St Trop’ I see them every day.”
The simple observation that the company director was able to consume more with his greater salary would be enough for economists to predict ‘growth’, not remorse. They might also find it puzzling that someone could be materially worse off, but still feel the new situation justified a fattened-calf feast. For our protagonists, however, it was not the outcome in absolute terms that mattered; rather, what counted for their wellbeing was their perception of the outcome relative to some reference point. For the prodigal’s father, the starting point of the story had long ceased to be a reference point. During his son’s absence, the reference point had shifted to one of being a father with just one son; the other was lost, possibly even dead. So, to find the missing boy safe and well (albeit impoverished) was a genuine delight. A similar effect applies to the promoted director. Compared to his former salary in Vichy, his present income is a significant improvement. The problem is that he does not make this comparison; his reference point is now the income of those he sees around him, an appraisal that obviously reflects him in an unflattering light.
When faced with unfavourable comparisons, people usually try harder to bring their reality closer to their reference point. For instance, the director could aim for a promotion into a salary bracket that would allow him to be the proud owner of a head-turning coupé. This is an admirable stance, but reality can sometimes prove stubbornly resistant to our efforts to change it. Furthermore, he has no guarantee that a new, even higher reference point would not simply replace the current one (Bugatti makes attractive coupés too), leaving the wellbeing deficit unchanged. This theoretically endless pursuit of ‘happiness’ is known as the hedonic treadmill. It should come as no surprise, then, that people who resist the temptation to compare themselves with others are also the most likely to describe themselves as happy. Those of us for whom such an enlightened strategy is not yet attainable, there is an alternative option that avoids the unnecessary defeatism of simply remaining gloomy: change the reference point.
As reference points exist solely in our heads, we can in theory choose any one we want. This step typically requires making a conscious effort to focus on an alternative reference point. It is probably not enough for our disgruntled salaryman to briefly dwell on the income of the lower earners in the firm, or to acquaint himself with the statistics on the median national wage; this is far too passive. Impressing a salient reference point onto his mind might require a more active effort, like helping out once a week at a soup kitchen or in a charity shop. Compared to the lives of the people he’ll meet while volunteering, his own will suddenly appear very fortunate indeed.
With some shrewd manipulation, it is possible to always find the right reference point to motivate, console, or even to justify a celebration. Indeed, at the end of the Prodigal Son’s story, the father implores the resentful older brother to join the party by reminding him how the lost son had now been found. In effect, he was encouraging the boy to abandon his unsatisfying reference point and to adopt one that was more advantageous for his wellbeing. Perhaps this is yet another moral to the parable.