Golden Handcuffs: excessive pay or benefits provided by a company to prevent employees or customers from going elsewhere.

Three years ago, Laura and I inadvertently qualified for Gold status on American Airlines, which is our favorite airline, since their planes actually fly to and from Abilene. “Gold” indicates the very best, at least at the Olympics or inside a Trump hotel, but with airlines this is not the case, with Gold ranking below numerous other levels including Platinum, Executive Platinum, Ultra Platinum, Platinum Professional, and Executive Double Ultra Platinum Professional Plus Plus, which is awarded only to musical acts like Abba.

Gold status offers several benefits, none very impressive, plus one that truly matters in the big scheme of life: Group 1 Boarding, which enables you to saunter onto the plane and scatter your six bags throughout the overhead bins, then sit back and feel superior as the lowly Group 2, 3, and (ha!) 4 folks struggle to store their gear. The first time we used our new status I was taken aback at how many other groups felt entitled to board before Gold; in fact I was so unsettled by this affront that the next time we boarded, I counted them: EIGHT. From military members, to the elderly, to Emerald and Ruby members, to first class passengers, to the recently married, to small rodents traveling alone, to immediate family members of the Jackson Five, the list raised serious questions about what “Group 1” actually meant. Nevertheless, it was still early enough for us to stow our bags and sit down in peace, and we appreciated it.

It took me a grand total of two trips to start feeling entitled to these new (unpurchased, unearned, undeserved) benefits. I quickly learned to enjoy walking through the unwashed masses of lesser travelers (some airline employees rudely refer to these crowds as ‘gate lice’), with a polite but firm, “Excuse me, priority boarding, Gold status, Group 1 traveler coming, make way, bow to me please.” Okay I’m making most of that up, but with overhead bin space harder to find than a snow day in Florida or humility in Texas, it is really nice to board early. And here’s where it got weird: as we approached the end of our year of (unpurchased, unearned, undeserved) “status” I found myself carefully monitoring my travel to be sure I would qualify again…and contemplating taking extra trips….and resenting the time or two I was on a tight connection and didn’t get to board early. Whereas boarding with Group 2 would have made me feel good a couple of years before, now it just hacked me off! And the airline knows this, and as we neared year-end and I had failed (MISERABLY FAILED!) to qualify for Gold status, AA kindly offered to extend my “elite benefits” for just $495, a sum which did not even include any actual tickets or air travel or beverage service. Why? Because they already knew what I have now learned about Gold status (and many other nice things in life): it is far easier to have never had something nice, than to have it and then lose it. Once I feel entitled to something, I grant it the power to make me unhappy.

How quickly do we move from feelings of appreciation to feelings of entitlement? The fastest thing in the universe is light, followed closely by cheetahs, then by toddlers scooting toward something breakable. But just behind cheetahs and just ahead of toddlers are human beings moving from appreciating something….to expecting it…to feeling entitled to it… to feeling cheated if they lose it. This is so well-established that scientists have a name for it: the Flying Cheetah Effect. Seriously I would totally name it that, but they call it “hedonic adaptation” (bor-ing), which means pretty much what I said, but in big-shot science talk: we quickly adapt to nice things and soon feel entitled to them, and become frustrated if we lose them. Promotions, raises, airline status upgrades, being named assistant to the regional manager, or calling “shotgun” in the family truckster all make us briefly happy, do little for our general enjoyment of life, and may actually reduce our happiness if we lose them. The airline counts on this: they gave me a free taste of the good life, then invited me to pay to keep it, and I wanted to. When a car dealer lets you drive a car home for the weekend “just to see if you like it,” it’s not just because he’s a swell guy: once it has lived in your garage and you have spent 48 hours getting used to having it there, taking it back feels like losing something.

The worst ending to any Bible story ever has to be the story of Jonah. The part you learned in Sunday School covers the big fish that got away, but the ending is a fine example of the Flying Cheetah Effect (FCE, (c) 2017, Mark Phillips). Basically God provides a vine to shade Jonah’s head, and Jonah is really happy about it. A day later the vine dies, and Jonah says he is “angry enough to die” over the demise of the free plant, which is FCE in action, and petty, and childish, and not one bit stupider than my undying love of my Gold status or your love of whatever. For people who show up in the world with nothing, and leave with precisely the same, we are quick to latch onto, and tack our happiness to, things that aren’t really ours, and suddenly the things that we own wind up owning us, and we are upset about losing things we didn’t even know we needed. Again.

On December 31st, I flew my 30th leg on AA, which qualified me for Gold status in 2017, and another year of unearned, undeserved convenience. I did it without booking any unneeded travel or paying an extra fee, and this year I am genuinely grateful to have it. And if I lose it for 2018, that will be just fine too. After all, Group 4 lands at the same time as First Class.

Coming Friday: some good news about how you can spend your money in a way that will get you more ‘bang for the buck’ and more long-term enjoyment. It turns out that sometimes money really can buy happiness. Sometimes.