Adapting to "The New Plenty"

by Lane Wallace

A few weeks ago, I spoke with a man who makes his living selling new and used business jets. Which is to say, a man with the economic prospects of someone selling flood insurance in a drought. Business jets are not exactly a booming business at the moment. I asked how bad things were. "Bad," he admitted. "But you know how 50 is the new 40 and pink is the new black? Well, I think 'enough' is the new 'plenty.' And I'm just thrilled to be doing 'enough.'"

It's a thought that would resonate with quite a few people, these days. But there's good as well as bad news on that front. The bad news is, many of us are having to adapt to a new standard of plenty. The good news is ... we're far better at adapting, and adapting to less, than we often fear.

There's no lack of academic research on this topic. Adaptation is central to a species' survival, after all. And anyone who's lived with an unfinished house project knows all too well how easy it is to adapt to everything from a missing stair railing or unfinished shower to huge holes in the walls or ceilings. After a while, you hardly even see them anymore. (Your guests, of course, are another matter.)

We adapt remarkably well, when we have to. Or, perhaps more accurately, when there truly isn't any other choice. A couple of years ago, I spent a month flying relief supplies into Sudan, Chad, and the eastern region of the (DRC) Congo. All kinds of things we take for granted here, from fresh coffee, hot water, and electricity to infrastructure, social order and an absence of AK-47-toting soldiers everywhere, disappeared abruptly from my daily routine. And yet, I adapted almost disturbingly well to the "new normal"--including the presence of AK-47s and military weaponry everywhere. If things simply aren't available, or are an inescapable part of daily life, we quickly learn to adjust our expectations accordingly.

The challenge comes from trying to scale back or deny yourself while all those comforts and niceties are still right there in front of you. If all the restaurants in the country suddenly disappeared, we'd soon learn to live without them. But trying to cut back on how many times we eat at restaurants that are all still appealingly and tantalizingly nearby and open ... that feels painful.

Counterintuitive as it sounds, we actually cope better with drastic changes than incremental adjustments. (For more evidence on this, check out Alan Deutschman's fascinating book Change or Die.)  Not that I'm suggesting moving to Africa just to make coping with the recession easier.

But during my time in Africa,  I spent some time in a couple of Darfur refugee camps, in the eastern region of Chad. When the refugees first arrived in the camps, said a Norwegian aid worker who'd also worked in Rwanda, Bosnia and the Congo, the Darfur refugees were the most emotionally and physically decimated group of humans he'd ever encountered. But three and four years later, the women I talked to there ... dressed in colorful fabrics, open to a visitor's questions, smiling, and playing with new babies ... were clearly going on with the daily business of living. Did they miss their destroyed villages? I asked. Of course, they answered. They dreamed of them day and night. Did they want to return home? A pause. Evidently a complex question. Well, yes. But not if it wasn't safe. Here, they said, we're safe. We have food. We have ... a shrug of the shoulders ...


Disturbing, on one level, how little can constitute "enough" for a human being. On the other hand... it's a powerful truth to learn, the concept of "enough." Wherever you are.