Relative Deprivation

Recently, I watched a talk by Malcolm Gladwell addressing a concept he dubbed “Relative Deprivation.” Curiously enough, he spoke at a Google conference, which housed some of the most intelligent people in this technology age. Why? Because the problem he acknowledged just so happens to plague the demographic that is most heavily involved in a life of erudition and intellectual excellence.

Gladwell begins by explaining this term through an example of relative happiness. It has almost become a common study that impoverished African countries report to have a higher average of “happy” people, while the United States show a lower average of happiness and greater percentages of clinical depression. Now, intuitively, this makes no sense. Better healthcare, more opportunities, higher standards of living: they should all directly correlate with happiness levels. Right? Well, not exactly.

The truth is, these things are all relative. We subconsciously recognize that a lot of these transcendental concepts are loosely defined by what’s relative to us. But that fact actually explains a lot more than what it purports. The American population suffers from relative deprivation because we surround ourselves with our immediate environment. If those around us are seemingly in financial, social and personal bliss, then our lives appear comparatively shittier. Even though, by average standards, we are leading completely wholesome, rich lives.

While this condition may be completely abstracted by some spurt of creative fiction, I saw a lot of truth in what Gladwell was describing. (If you’re at all interested: Although he substantiates his theories with statistics and quantitative data, I prefer to approach it with a layman’s perspective of our own campus. See, the truth is, IMSA seems to be a Petri dish of competition and pressure – two crucial factors to the onset of this idea of “relative deprivation”.

This feeling of constant comparison is pervasive across our little student body. Incoming sophomores are always warned that coming into IMSA might tear their egos up a little bit and knock their levels of self-righteousness down a few notches. Why? Because IMSA fosters an environment where most people are treading ceaselessly against the current of mediocrity.

Here’s how the cycle appears to me. After coming into IMSA, people are hit with the reality that, yes, they are no longer the very top of their class. They come to the revelation that many others have been raised to constantly out-compete others and challenge the pinnacle of intellectual capability. This leads to a feeling of futility, because all of a sudden, our immediate environment has been filled with cutthroat competition and incredibly intelligent students. Some people then become unmotivated to work because they admit defeat to the epidemic of relative deprivation. Rinse. Repeat.

The real threat of something like relative deprivation is that we place ourselves only in our immediate environments. The things we perceive around us become the only reality that exists and our psyches are subsequently shattered. This is why I believe so many IMSA students cave to the pressure of competition or the burden of the workload. Students then face emotional struggles of self-esteem, self-worth, and self-capability.

Do I think this problem is going to fix itself anytime soon? Well, admittedly… no, not really. If we were to remove ourselves from our immediate environment and look at the grand scheme of things, then perhaps, yes. Honestly, the reason why so many peers end up leaving IMSA is because they really are in a better environment at their old school. Although IMSA’s opportunities can help many students achieve more, the value of our time spent here is relative to one’s own perception of oneself. If we could each intellectually isolate ourselves, without this idea of relativity, then IMSA’s mental health would follow suit and improve as well.

However, the stark truth of relative deprivation at IMSA is that it isn’t a problem that can really be solved. The best we can do is acknowledge its presence and then maybe take a couple of baby steps. We can tell ourselves that relatively, sure, our lives might be cynically beating onwards in a wave of “average-ness.” But before you fall victim to self-doubt, the thing to change first is perception. IMSA students need to stop comparing themselves to each other and only those in this immediate environment. Eventually, we might just realize that, relatively, we’re all doing just fine after all.

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