More, More, More

Storage has recently become big business. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes without even noticing it, so much clutter has been amassing that people do not know what to do with it anymore. They do not need most of it, obviously, but do not want to go through the hassle of sorting through it, nor to give it up – so, off into storage it goes. It is not really strange. We have been thrown right into economic troubles because ordinary people consumed beyond their real means, financial advisors and institutions borrowed the necessary money, hoping to make money off even more lenders and ever more creative “financial instruments.” And now, the main solution proposed is to give people the enticement and faith in the economy that would make them consume more, again. There is a justification for credit, as a tool making it possible to invest in a chance for future gain – but not as a form of gambling without a likelihood of winning.

We naturally tend to want more, to tell ourselves that a little something more, that other thing we don’t yet have, will make us happy. Even economists realize, though, that more of the same will give you less and less pleasure (“utility”). – The first plate of food is really nice when you are hungry, a second helping may still be nice to have, a third and fourth would be a burden. The market does not only satisfy wishes, however, it also creates them. There is ever more diversity, there are ever more things with which you will supposedly be happy (and are a fool if you don’t buy them since everybody else does). Another pair of shoes to go with the new outfit; another electronic gadget that satisfies urges you never knew you had; the latest model which is greatly improved; the household utility that will save you time; the car that is bigger than your neighbor’s… the list goes on forever, the junk piles up, the rat race goes into another lap.

Interestingly, happiness researchers have hardly looked at the role of clutter. Judging by the number of books about simplifying your life, getting organized and clearing away all the clutter that’s choking you, there is a widespread need for this, though. Maybe it’s not seen as quite so necessary by scholars, because there are lots of discussions about conspicuous consumption and its negative effects. There is increasing concern about this urge to consume. It is one of the big problems making our “footprints” on this planet ever larger and more problematic, using up stock rather than living off the gains of natural resources. In these times of economic uncertainty, it’s also a hassle to be in such a habit of amassing ever more stuff when you can’t be sure you are going to be able to afford the place to keep it all in (and often enough, not even the things themselves). For many, attitudes have been changing quickly: The bigger car used to mean that your neighbor was doing better. Now, having seen economic trouble, more people understand that it also means that the poor bastard has higher rates to pay back to the bank.

Typically, dealing with the effect of our wanting ever more requires at least two steps: clearing away, and becoming more conscious spenders. Yes, spenders. While I love the notion that having no desires will make you free, I don’t think this radical an attempt will cut it for most (including me). There are things we need and want. We will return time and again to how experiences and actions are much more important and relevant than things, though.

Thus, especially because the urge to want more runs deep, it’s all the more important to learn to stop and think for a little. A short stop, often enough, is all that it takes to find that the shiny new thing that’s so tempting right now is really not needed – and though we may be happier in the moment by just buying, then comes the remorse which takes away the fun. It serves to show just why the feeling of joy is not the best form of happiness. Rather, the longer-term view needs to be considered.

In stopping, in deciding, in looking for the things that will provide “the biggest bang for the buck,” we can even find a deeper pleasure than the mere act of consumption provides. As good as being able to afford whatever you want, at once, sounds on the surface, it is really an empty exercise. There will always be something more, outside one’s grasp – and having everything is not what makes a life good. It takes – and we’ll go into more detail on that later – a skill in living, which includes handling one’s money well, tricking oneself into doing so, if necessary. Being thrifty, knowing how and that you make enough to get by, getting good deals, getting the right things for what you personally want from life, is a pleasure in and of itself. In that, consumption is justified, including for what others will deem luxuries – but you need to find out what will give you the greatest pleasure for the longest time, rather than just being something that tempts you right now, because “you’ve got to have it.” In that, it does not take ever more things, it takes things that contribute to the “things” that really make us happy – which, once true material needs are covered, are mainly immaterial.