As I was reading through some history books about how peasants in medieval times needed to bring all of their animals into their one-bedroom homes each night to protect them from thieves and predators, it dawned on me: this is clearly the greatest time in the history of the world to be alive. Imagine raising your entire family in a one-room shack, and then sharing it each night with chickens, pigs, cattle, or other animals because if they were left outside at night they could be lost. Remember that none of these animals would be house-trained! With untrained animals in your very small kitchen (or bedroom, whatever you want to call it, because they were the same room) hygiene was completely impossible. Things could not improve just because a new born baby was born. Animals needed to come in at night, and bring their fleas and bug friends with them, that’s just the way things were. Reading further I discovered that the very richest people had none of the things we accept as normal today– no running water, no toilets, no baths. Soap and shampoo were not invented yet. People would have been covered with dirt, fleas and lice. Beds were simply straw stuffed “mattresses”which attracted lice and all types of bugs. Even the richest people bathed only once or twice a year, and when they did, many people would bath in the same filthy water before throwing it out.
I have visited castles in Europe, and while they are magnificent and magical, they are not exactly comfortable. Again, at that time there was no running water, no electricity, almost none of the comforts we completely take for granted today. I wonder if it would be a stretch to say that a middle class lifestyle today is more comfortable than the lifestyles of kings and queens a few generations back. Remember, not only were the castles dirty and stinky by today’s standards, those in power were constantly killing and intimidating in order to maintain power. A really dreadful lifestyle.
Think back just a hundred years in your own country’s history; in America working conditions were so bad that one book The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (written in 1905) chronicled meat packaging plants where workers lost limbs in the dangerous machines, and the human parts became a part of the meat. There was no agency to verify that meat was sanitary, and workers had no option other than to try to stay safe in miserable working conditions. What was the reward for this 16 hour per day “job”? barely enough money to buy food for the day. Children were seen as an investment as opposed to an expense, because they could start working for a few pennies a day when they were as young as 4 and 5 years old.
The average square footage for a house in 1950 in America was 853 square feet. NPR (National Public Radio) reports that in 2006 the average size had more than doubled to 2,349 square feet. There are also less people per home today than in 1950.
I won’t belabor the point any further. Suffice it to say you and I are very, very wealthy right now. As I look at most people’s expenses it becomes abundantly clear just how high our standard of living is. Many people are now spending large amounts of their paychecks on things that didn’t even exist just 20 or 30 years ago. Cell phones (and data plans), laptops, ipads, ipods, or anything else with an “i” in front of it didn’t exist when I was younger. We have so much extra money now, as opposed to 20 years ago, that we can splurge on gadgets that didn’t exist a few years ago. I think the cost of a shirt has stayed roughly the same since I was younger, in spite of steady 3% inflation.
Today’s economy is so specialized and so efficient that computers can now be made for just a couple hundred dollars. I used to teach Mandarin Chinese in high school, I know what the pay is for a beginning teacher. Think about that, a new teacher can afford to buy a cheap laptop today with just a few days wages. Far less powerful computers cost $4,000 or more just a couple decades ago.
Yesterday I went into a health foods store and ordered an incredible sandwich. It cost $8.00. At first I thought “$8 for a sandwich? that is so expensive!” Then I opened my eyes and watched the employee of the sandwich shop slice homemade bread and then toast it for 20 seconds. He put the various sauces, and vegetables on my sandwich, and within 2 minutes gave me a freshly prepared meal. The food was delicious. It was healthy, and it was fast. As I ate my sandwich I realized how impressive this experience was. Just two years ago this restaurant did not exist. If I were to recreate the meal by myself, it would take me hours to make the bread, buy and prepare all of the various vegetables, study the sauces and learn to perfect them, and prepare everything. After my hours of effort to create the food, it likely would not have tasted as good, and my calculation is that it would have cost me at least $36. I’m not sure exactly what goes into the sauces, and it may very well end up costing far more than $36.
I was pondering the value of that restaurant and just how blessed I am to have access to such value whenever I choose and I walked out to my car. Yes, I had driven 20 miles and stopped at this place before a meeting, but the 20 miles only took 20 minutes because of this amazing car. When I sat in the car it dawned on me that my car, a Prius, costs less than $30,000 USD new to buy. How many thousands of hours of expertise and engineering had to go into that vehicle to make it so efficient? How many millions of dollars of infrastructure are necessary to manufacture that car in such vast numbers that they can be produced for such a low price? In 1986 the first Porsche 911 came out. It was a powerful car by those standards, with 130 horsepower. Today an average car will have about 130 horsepower-for a fraction of the price of a Porsche.
Need I say more? I could go on because there are so many more examples. Life is simply better today in so many ways. Even if you can’t afford a car at today’s prices, how many lifetimes would it take for you to make your own bicycle? Decide to recognize the abundance and comfort you are living in now. You are wealthy now.
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