At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch 22 over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have . . . Enough.”*
In our global consumer society – where you either live to buy, or you aspire to join the ranks of those who can “live so nicely” – it hardly seems necessary to point out that actual things are among the things that make happy. Advertisements are all around, whether as actual ads, or in the form of the glitzy lifestyles presented in the media.
At the same time, the hunt for ever more crap is obviously not the way to happiness, it is just the shackles and chains that bind us into the wheels of the “hedonic treadmill,” make us put up with the rat race even when we have realized that there is no finish to it.
All the more reason to look at the issue through its ecology – its relationship with the world, other factors, and happiness – and to look at the difficult exercise of balance.
Particularly when you don’t have so much, anyways, it’s easy to be all too aware that existence does mean consumption – struggling for the next meal is hardly the most comfortable, happy, kind of existence.
It is this truism that some of our most dangerously faulty connections arise out of, though:
We seek more, simply because we are made so that we get used to what we have and value the new more, even as we can’t stand the thought of losing what we possess. Consumerism runs with that tendency, creating products that promise a lot, and also fail soon, so that getting more and more appears necessary as well as promising.
It’s been a problem for a while. Even the ancient Greek (or Romans?) had the fable about the dog which had a nice juicy bone, waded through water – and saw yet another nice juicy bone. Snapping at it, he lost the one he had to its reflection.
Consumerism, once you are in it, easily gets to the point where you wish some things would just get lost, though – even as you can’t let go. At least then, there’d be space to buy new things. And so, the problem is apparent:
We do need possessions. We are only too good at falling into the trap of wanting ever more, even to the point where we are possessed by the junk around us, rather than drawing any more value from it, however.
Consider the personal impact, as you feel bad if you don’t have as much as your neighbors, can’t afford the latest tchotchke which is supposedly so much better – and at the same time feel like there’s so much junk, you are just drowning in it.
Saying all that is not even getting into the issue of how stuff tends to replace love, skill, and other things that make happy – let alone pointing to the host of environmental issues such as health impacts, pollution, all the madness “The Story of Stuff” nicely points out. Looking at wider impacts, there’s also the issue of limits. If everyone wanted to live like the average European, let alone American, it simply wouldn’t be possible…
The challenge is to find a right balance – and it’s purposefully phrased like that, not as “the” right balance. Yes, there are products with more or less environmental impact, and there is the issue of equity. But even so, it’s necessary to also look at the overall value of such products – especially to the individual. That’s you.
There are more steps to consider, but easily the most important issue when it comes to actual things is to realize what is just tempting you because it is so shiny and new, whether it will really deliver – and to know what you individually really value.
Others may call it luxury, but if it’s important to you…
Then, though, try and live better by getting more of all the other things that make happy into your life, to see if that value really holds up to scrutiny. Only too often, it is not the possession we seek at all, it is what it stands for – distinction, confidence, adventure, love.
Those are the things that are more important than actual things.