Freakonomics: Why is My Life So Hard



Why do people think that life is so hard for them?


How we build resentment; how those resentments can curdle our well-being; and how we would all benefit from feeling some more gratitude

 GUESTS: TOM GILOVICH – professor of psychology at Cornell University

SHAI DAVIDAI – assistant professor of psychology at The New School of Social Research


  • Tom and Shai looked into why people think life is so hard for them, especially why people perceive:
    • Parents were tougher on them than their siblings
    • Why Democrats and Republicans both believe the decks are stacked against them
    • Why rooting for your sports teams can be painful
    • Most importantly: why we’re not as grateful as we should be


  • In addition to the latest published paper, The Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry, Tom is also known for research in behavioral studies including:
    • The Spot Light Effect
      • The feeling that whatever we’re doing, the spotlight is on us, when actually people are not paying as much attention as we think.
    • The Hot Hand Fallacy
      • Named after the feeling gained after making several basketball shots in a row. However, the “hot hand” notion is misleading – it doesn’t increase statistical chances of making the next shot
    • Bias Blind Sot
      • Easier to see bias in others than yourself
    • Self-Handicapping
      • Pretending you have obstacles so as to manage others expectations whether or not you fail or succeed


  • The Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry – “We pay attention to the barriers in front of us because we have to get over them. We have to overcome them.  We don’t have to pay attention to those things that are boosting us along.
    • Placing the focus on our life’s difficulties can skew our thinking, build resentment
  • Methods to increase Gratitude
    • Diary – study found that after a few days of keeping a “grateful for” diary, people were happier and more satisfied
    • Letter – writing a letter of gratitude to someone is even more effective
  • Benefits of Expressing Gratitude
    • Sleep better
    • Go to the doctor less often
    • Have less depressive symptoms
  • Types of Gratitude
    • Tangibles – typical examples are parents, family, friends
    • Invisibles – often missed because not visible, example educational opportunities
    • Luxury vs. necessity – what was once a luxury, quickly becomes a necessity ex) airline Wi- Fi
    • Louis CK example: “Everything is amazing but no one cares.”
  • Hedonic Treadmill – as soon as you get what you were hoping for, you move on to needing/wanting something else or more
  • Enemies of Gratitude
    • Greed – because what you have is not enough, it is hard to take stock of what you have
    • Malicious Envy – “I don’t want them to have that. They don’t deserve it.” That attitude makes it difficult to stop and feel grateful.
  • Headwinds – barriers and obstacles and difficulties
  • Tailwinds – good things that boost us
  • Focus of Tom and Shai’s research – measure people’s perceptions of headwinds/tailwinds in a variety of domains
    • Siblings – each say the other had it easier, both claim Headwinds
    • Democrats/Republicans – each says the other side has all the advantages, both claim Headwinds
    • Sports Fans – researchers used NFL schedule to gage fans perceptions- hard games “jumped off the page” for them
    • Sub-disciplines in Academia – each sees other disciplines as having it easier
      • Experimental vs. non experimental accountants
      • When a person viewed their field or themselves as disadvantaged, they were more likely to engage in questionable moral practices, encourages resentful feelings
    • Applications
      • Perceived war on white Christian men – headwinds: “they have seen their influence decrease, while from the outside their enormous advantage for hundreds of years actually has been rebalanced”
      • Feeling Aggrieved feeds resentment
        • Less likely to do good things
        • More likely to do questionable things
      • Characteristics of People who Don’t Overweight Headwinds
        • These people disproportionately cite people who have done good things for them as a Tailwind
        • People don’t like to be told they’re lucky; it diminishes their achievements, prefer to name their own tailwinds
      • How to appreciate Tailwinds
        • Knowing about Tailwinds/Headwinds is helpful
        • Don’t fall prey to Confirmation Bias
          • When you over recruit evidence in favor of your beliefs
        • Do a Pre-mortem
          • Play devil’s advocate and argue against what you believe
        • Write Down/Think of what you are grateful for
          • “What are the invisible things that make my life easier. Let me focus on those.”

Notes by Eileen Werbitsky

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