The Eleventh Penny

Let me share a story with you. 

A fifty-year-old man, tattered from head to foot and living off with absolutely nothing, dragged his feet forwards on a lonely, quiet street. He was going to lie down on the rough floor covered with dust and stone when a penny on the ground caught his eyes. Once he saw it, he could not stop feeling grateful and blessed. “I couldn’t believe my luck!”, he said to himself and kept it. 

On the second day, he found another penny on the ground! This time, he felt less happy than yesterday and was not surprised by that amazing luck which somehow came again. 

On the third day, he came across another penny lying on the ground. But, he felt even less grateful as yesterday. 

When this lucky-penny incident went on and on for the tenth time, the man was feeling absolutely spiritless. He wanted more than one penny each day and felt angry and hopeless. 

And, not surprisingly, when he found the eleventh penny, he was furious and cursed to the top of his lungs. 

In economics, this is called the law of diminishing marginal utility, which is basically the law of diminishing gratitude. In the simplest terms, taking things for granted. 

I first came across this term when I was researching Harry Frankfurt, an American philosopher, on the internet. In an attempt to answer the perennial question of “distributive justice” (who should get what and how?), Frankfurt came up with his set of rules known as the Doctrine of Sufficiency, which states that ​“if everyone had enough, it would be of no moral consequence whether some had more than others”. His definition of “enough” could be seen in terms of the law of diminishing marginality when the curve relating the amount of money and the happiness level starts to flatten out. This proves that the idea of the law of diminishing marginality is common in our lives, and not a term that is used just in economics.

But, for simplicity’s sake, let’s just call it the eleventh penny effect, where the eleventh penny represents our lack of appreciation for gifts of life. In real life, the man represents all of us and the penny represents the gifts that life gave us. If the eleventh penny is of the same value as the first penny he got, what makes the man less grateful when it comes to his eleventh penny as opposed to the first one?

The reason I shared this story is simple. We are living in an era of the eleventh penny effect, in abundance. Yet, we complain. We complain about people, jobs, schools, traffic, food, weather…and politics. For most of us young students, we complain about the workload we’re given during summer holidays, the boring lessons at school, our grades, projects, and later, the college application process. 

Complaints are not to be made so that we could get things over with. Scientifically, studies have shown that when we complain, our body releases the stress hormone cortisol, which then impairs our immune system and makes us more susceptible to high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Not only does complaining cause harm to our body, but also to our mental health as well. According to research conducted at the University of California, Davis, “people who worked daily to cultivate an attitude of gratitude experienced improved mood and energy and substantially less anxiety due to lower cortisol levels”. 

The simplest way to achieve an ‘attitude of gratitude’ is this. Whenever you experience negative thoughts, ask yourself, “Do I need it?”, and use this as a cue to direct all your attention onto one positive thought. With awareness and practice, a positive attitude will become your lifelong friend before you know it.

Now that we are in this situation together, however, I’m sure we all started to appreciate lots of things in life that we took for granted.

The joy of speaking with another human being. The appreciation of simple meals each day. The thankfulness of being safe.

With the deadly coronavirus spreading all over the globe, causing deaths and unexpectancy, the present situation is certainly deplorable, but this is a lesson for us to learn from – that we are dependent on something much bigger than ourselves. This is a battle we cannot win unless we learn to be grateful even amidst the catastrophic death tolls and depression engulfing our cities. We can start by counting for all the blessings we have by writing them down, making prayers, and reciprocating the same love for other people who might desperately need it. And before we know it, we would have already felt much better.

Borrowing from Father Thankachan (John) Nambusseril’s quote, “when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”. 

I believe that any person who always tries their best to appreciate life will eventually be able to strive for a happier self and a brighter future.

Editor’s note: Take a step back to appreciate what you currently have. Spend 5 minutes reflecting on 3 things you feel grateful about.