What Do You Need in Your Cage?

Monkey in a CageI’m a big fan of a podcast called Radiolab. Hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, every week they tackle one big concept – like time, sleep, or identity – and they talk about it for about an hour. Its extremely engaging and never uninteresting. And it was while listening to an episode about zoos, yes that’s right, zoos, that they touched upon a fascinating concept that can be related back to society, lifestyle, money and happiness. You see, at some level, we are all just animals in a cage.

Let me explain.

Some time ago, a neuroscientist at Princeton, Elizabeth Gould, and her research group conducted a study in which they placed groups of monkeys in three different types of cages. The first cage was a standard, wire cage enclosure – let’s call this the lower class cage. The second cage was the so-called ‘Beverly Hills’ of cages – the monkeys had social interaction, they had to forage for their own food, they had toys to play with, etc – let’s call this the upper class cage. The third cage was somewhere in the middle, they had a little less of everything compared to the second cage but more of everything compared to the basic first cage – let’s call this the middle class cage.

After some time, the researchers took some monkeys from each set of cages and looked at the development of their brains. They found a remarkable difference between the brains of the lower and middle class monkeys. The middle class brains were 20-40% more developed than those from the lower class. Clearly, there is a benefit to providing opportunities for engagement, be it social, tactile or intellectual.

What About the Upper Class?

The researchers found essentially no difference between the brain development of monkeys in the middle and upper classes.

No Difference?

That’s right, no difference. It seems that there might be a bit of a threshold effect happening. At a certain point, you brain says “Hey, look at this, I’ve got some friends to hang out with, I’ve got some toys to play with, I’ve got some challenges in my life, I’m pretty happy with this”. Any extra engagement provides no added benefit because the brain is already satisfied with what it has. It doesn’t need or want more.

But These Are Monkeys…

Yes, that’s true, but last time I checked, monkeys are just one rung down on the evolutionary ladder. We aren’t all that different in the end. Its no surprise then that researchers have started identifying a similar lifestyle and financial threshold in humans. Many researchers have pegged the number at about $75,000/year. A Princeton study found that day-to-day happiness increased with increasing income and then hit a plateau at about $75,000/year, though overall life satisfaction continued to increase with increasing income.

Think about everything you have in your cage – and let’s face it, we all have our own, self-defined cage. Some people call it a bubble. It usually encompasses your home, work, the places you regularly visit, the people you usually see, the things you usually do. We are creatures of routine and escaping the bubble usually comes in the form of a vacation. Other people call it the backpack of life. Think about all the stuff you have and try to put it in your backpack. Heavy?

What Do You Really Need in Your Cage?

Earning more money and living a more lavish lifestyle might allow you to put more stuff in your cage, but what is all that stuff going to contribute to your day-to-day happiness. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have any of it. As the study clearly shows, we need a certain amount of engagement in order to develop our brains, but where do we cut the line. At what point do we realize that we’re chasing things that will provide no real overall benefit in the end. How often as kids did we open a present at Christmas only to forget about it 10 minutes later when we opened the next present?

The environmental and financial consequences of excessive materialism are stark. Household debt in Canada hit an all-time at the end of 2011. Fuel prices are skyrocketing as the supply of fossil fuels tries to keep up with the demand for goods. Decisions are being made every day that favour our materialistic needs over the needs of the planet. When does it stop?

Readers, are you concious of what you need in your cage? Do you believe there is a threshold beyond which there is nothing to gain, or do you think that happiness can always grow proportionally to money and lifestyle increases?

Curious to learn more? You can listen to the Radiolab Zoos podcast below or on their website.

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5 thoughts on “What Do You Need in Your Cage?

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