In the Face of Constantly Changing Reference Points

Constant Change

A while ago I read a post by Payam Banazadeh on the importance of having a non-moving reference point in life which inspired me to write about different relative reference points that we unknowingly and sometimes knowingly adopt in our daily lives and further investigate the possibility of choosing non-moving reference points in life. Payam argues that we are always comparing ourselves (our standing and status in life) with moving reference points. These reference points typically move as we progress forward and grow in life. To be happy, we need to remember our starting reference point and even adopt a non-moving reference point. Here I look at a variety of these reference points that we embrace and how they can affect our satisfaction and happiness with life.

Expectations are among the most commonly used reference points. When we expect something and that expectation is disconfirmed negatively, then we tend to be dissatisfied and unhappy. The “expectation” here, however, is more complicated than it sounds. Our expectations are typically formed based on our past direct or indirect experience with similar situations to what we are facing now (e.g., product, service, relationship, etc.). For example, if every smartphone that we (including phones of other people we know) owned started getting slow and sloppy after two years, we will form an expectation that smartphones are only good for two years. Then if we get a phone that works two years with no issues, we would be content; And if we get one that only works for a year and a half, then we would be upset, but if it works more than two years, perhaps we will be happy. Similar scenarios apply to your satisfaction with services (e.g., what do we expect from a driving license office experience?) and relationships (e.g., what do we expect out of a relationship/partnership when the other party reminds us very much of one of the past people of your life?) as well as other life situations. In short, if we see or experience something, we will develop an expectation of how it will be next time. And as we experience it more, the more our expectations develop and become mature and stable. However, our expectations will never be fixed since each direct or indirect experience will change them to some degree.

Furthermore, not all expectations are based on past experiences; some of them are based on ideals or desires. Maybe our experience tells us that we should expect problems with our smartphone right around the two years mark. Still, we ideally desire a phone that can work fast and flawlessly for many years to come. Instead of expecting how life situations will turn out to be, we might also have a desire for how they should turn out. Ideals and desires, although to some degree informed by our experiences, they are mainly related to our belief systems. For example, the ideals and desires of a person who believes in socialism are very different than the ideals and desires of one who believe in capitalism. Desired expectations are more stable than experienced-based expectations; however, they are not fixed references either. There are many examples of people who used to subscribe to a different belief system (e.g., worldview, religion, social and governmental systems, etc.) than the ones they currently hold. You might have heard of them, or if you are old enough, you might be one of them. Even though these forms of expectations are more stable, they are not fixed; And they can gradually change as we age and rearrange our belief systems.

Another reference point is rooted in our sense of justice and fairness. We compare our efforts and outcomes of those efforts to that of others. We generally expect to have similar or better efforts to outcomes ratio as others; otherwise, we may not be happy. Consider that you and your colleague work the same hours on a similar job, but your colleague ends up getting paid more or receives a promotion, and you don’t. You probably will not be happy about this situation. This reference point is more stable than the other two since it relies on our sense of fairness and equity. However, it is yet contextual and hence cultural. It varies among groups of people. It also can shift as we age, and our perception and sense of justice change. It is cultural since, in some cultures, it might be expected that people from a cast, royalty, or social class be entitled to more money and resources for similar job efforts than others. For example, in many cultures and social systems, physicians are highly regarded, and it is expected for them to make more money per hour’s effort compared to a nurse. Thus, if nurses compare themselves to physicians, they probably will not perceive this difference of efforts over outcomes ratio as unfair, even when they work longer hours and put more physical or mental efforts into a similar job. The same situation, in other cultures (e.g., communist), may seem to be very unfair and unjust. I believe many of us can recall moments when we felt something is not fair either for us or for others by means of comparing our inputs to outcomes ratio to that of others.

Finally, we are most conscious of our goals as our reference points. Our goals can take many forms (e.g., personal, professional, cultural, etc.). Nevertheless, they are our goals and are internal ones, once accepted and set. Even having no goals in life, and taking life as it comes, is a goal in itself to achieve! Goals are also highly cultural and, at the same time, affected by our desires, ideals, and experiences. The goal of being a good person is defined by what society holds to be an example of a good person, which may differ from one culture to another. The goal of being successful in life is also defined by what society and culture see as success and is not universal. We also adjust our goals based on the feedback we receive from our experience. If we continuously fail in achieving a goal, we may adjust it in some ways (e.g., lower it, break it down, etc.).Accordingly, if we continuously succeed in achieving our goals, we may adjust them in other ways. Goals, as reference points, are not fixed either, and in fact, they should not be fixed as they play an essential role in our growth in life and our motivation for advancement as Payam rightly pointed out.

In this essay, I have discussed four major types of reference points: expectations, ideals/desires, equity/fairness, and goals. Although to a varying degree, all of them are based on our past experience, belief systems, and cultural/situational backgrounds, and thus neither of them can be fixed permanently. They also should not be fixed either as they play a significant role in our growth and advancement in life. As we progress through life, we inevitably gain more experience, make adjustments to our belief systems, and many of us even end up adapting to new cultures and situations. Hence our reference points will be adjusted and updated accordingly and in many cases without us being aware of it happening. So what can we do if theoretically, we can not, and practically we should not adopt a fixed reference point in life?

I think we can observe ourselves and be aware of the mental processes that are creating our reference points through our expectations, desires, ideals, sense of equity/fairness, and goals. We can separate ourselves from our reference points and their makers and see them for what they are: a bunch of tools and processes to help us get through life. When we are unhappy, we can figure out if it is because of disconfirmed expectations or incongruent desires? Or because of missed goals or bruised sense of fairness. Once we figure out the main process behind our unhappiness, we can adjust that process to mitigate our unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life. Recognizing that we are not our ideals, expectations, sense of justice, or goals, rather we are the one that contains and express them, we can adjust our expectations, revisit our ideals, ponder about the meaning of justice and fairness, and move our goalposts as our internal tools to deal with our unhappiness, while at the same time trying our best to affect and change contextual situations that have contributed to our unhappiness.

Associate Professor of Information Systems; Interested in Philosophy & Mysticism; Researching Human Behavior; Teaching Data Mining & Business Analytics