“I want everything, and I want it now!”
That seems to be the leitmotif of Western society.
The generations that have been educated in abundance have developed a kind of materialistic impatience that leads them to greedily search for the latest fashion gadget and demand quick results. They want it all and they want it now. As a result, many have developed what we could classify as a true intolerance for deprivation.
What is tolerance for deprivation?
Living in society feeds the tendency to compare ourselves. We want to know how well or how poorly we are doing compared to the others. However, there is a catch to such social comparisons because some people may feel deprived and believe they deserve more.
In that case, they can develop an intolerance for deprivation, which occurs when we consider the others to be unfairly above us, either because they are more successful, happier, have achieved greater achievements or have more valuable qualities. Deprivation intolerance involves feeling that one is deprived of a desired and deserved outcome compared to some benchmark.
Tolerance for deprivation, on the other hand, is the ability to maintain stable psychological functioning, even though we are aware that we lack certain qualities, have not achieved some goals or do not possess certain things. It is a mature response to the fact that we cannot achieve everything that others achieve, being aware that we do not need it to live fully.
The psychological consequences of intolerance for deprivation
The intolerance for deprivation began to be studied as the gap between rich and poor has been widening, especially within deeply unequal societies. However, the spread of social networks has made this gap even more apparent, opening the way to comparisons with apparently perfect and ideal lifestyles that can end up generating intense dissatisfaction in those who do not achieve them.
Thus, “Frustration intolerance becomes a trap that locks people into negative thought patterns that exacerbate their emotional distress,” as researchers from Memorial University of Newfoundland concluded.
In fact, a study carried out at the University of California found that intolerance for frustration is related to feelings of anger and resentment, which are particularly difficult to combat and generate a toxic mental state. In turn, psychologists from the University of Innsbruck found that intolerance for deprivation increases affective hostility and encourages aggressive behavior.
Intolerance for frustration has also been linked to poorer mood, more stress, and a lower sense of well-being. In this sense, another investigation carried out at Sonoma State University revealed that this state of intolerance for deprivation predicts worse long-term mental health. In fact, it has been related to both depressive symptoms and anxiety. In the case of depression, the intolerance for deprivation triggers a series of negative automatic thoughts about oneself. In the case of generalized anxiety, it exacerbates worries and a feeling of uncertainty and ambiguity, which increases distress.
Obviously, living settled in that feeling of continuous lack, comparing ourselves with others and systematically coming out badly, is not living. Rather it is a sentence to permanent life dissatisfaction. Therefore, we need to change our threshold to deprivation sensitivity. Our mental health will thank us.
How to develop tolerance for deprivation?
One of the keys lies in the belief in a just world. Research has shown that the more we think that the world should be a fair place, the more intense our intolerance for deprivation can be because the more we believe we have the right to have what others have, often without appreciating all the effort or the sacrifice behind the achievements.
In fact, for most people, intolerance for deprivation is a deeply subjective experience – unless there is an evident deprivation – that implies feeling inferior to others. Therefore, our deprivation sensitivity does not depend solely on the absence of something – be it a personal quality, a possession or a social achievement – but rather on the feeling of injustice and inferiority that this lack triggers.
To better understand this phenomenon, we can see it as a process made up of three phases:
1. Social comparison with a specific objective (for example, people who practice our same profession) and on a specific result (such as material wealth).
2. Cognitive evaluation that leads us to believe that we are comparatively at a disadvantage with the referent we have used.
3. Feelings of resentment, hostility and life dissatisfaction produced by our conclusions.
That means that two people on exactly the same rung of the social ladder could have very different perceptions of deprivation. For example, two professors in the same department who have the same salary, years of education and service, and number of publications may have different perceptions of social justice that fuel resentment and dissatisfaction. One can feel at a disadvantage in other dimensions – for not having a family or having few friends – because he resorts to other material references for comparison – like a millionaire friend – or simply because he has a different affective response to his position in society and gives him a different weight.
Therefore, we can break the cycle of dissatisfaction in any of its phases, either by avoiding comparing ourselves with others, readjusting our chimerical concept that the world should be a fair place in which we all have the right to everything, or learning to manage the emotions that this process generates.
Deep down, developing tolerance for deprivation does not mean conforming or submitting, but rather preventing useless comparisons from harming us, to the point that we become obsessed with what we lack and are unable to appreciate what we have. Tolerance for deprivation implies developing a mature attitude that understands that we cannot have it all – much less immediately – but neither is it necessary to live fully and happily. In fact, getting out of that loop will make us much freer and less dependent on others, reaffirming our autonomy and self-determination as unique people.
Smith, H. J. et. Al. (2020) Personal relative deprivation and mental health among university students: Cross-sectional and longitudinal evidence. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy.
Nadler, J. et. Al. (2020) The relative deprivation trap: How feeling deprived relates to the experience of generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology; 39(10): 897-922.
Greitemeyer, T. & Sagioglou, C. (2019) The impact of personal relative deprivation on aggression over time. J Soc Psychol; 159(6): 664-675.
Callan, M. J. et. Al. (2015) Predicting self-rated mental and physical health: the contributions of subjective socioeconomic status and personal relative deprivation. Front. Psychol; 6: 1415.
Smith, H. J. et. Al. (2011) Relative Deprivation: A Theoretical and Meta-Analytic Review.
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