Posted by Mark Richards
Last month, I began my series entitled “Increasing Your Joy,” a string of posts about the importance of properly prioritizing key aspects of your life. When you put things in the right order, you’re far more likely to be satisfied.
In the my last post, I talked about how “stuff” can ruin your thinking. Now I’m taking it a step further by saying that your stuff can wreck your happiness altogether!
There’s a couple of reasons why this happens. The first is that we live in a consumer culture.
The phrase has been used almost to the point of cliché, but the point remains: Americans buy. We place serious value on goods and we buy them to bring us joy. Ours is the biggest consumer market in the world, and even if China’s tops that of the United States next year (as it’s predicted to do), it will take a billion of them to do it.
As consumers, Americans are hyperaware of what’s being bought and sold around them. That means that an iPhone 4, which would’ve been inconceivable 20 years ago, is now a piece of junk. And your books, dressers, artwork, assorted nightstands and dozens of unworn outfits? Well, they’re worse than junk.
The result is that your stuff comes with the expectation that it will bring you happiness, but it doesn’t. This wouldn’t be such a problem if we were left feeling neutral. Unfortunately, the realization jars us into feeling sad.
The second reason why stuff makes us unhappy is because having isn’t really responsible for much of our happiness at all, once you acquire security and food. It turns out that doing is really where it’s at.
Psychologists have known for some time that experiences trump things. The jokes that begin over a dinner table with friends or the memories that spawn from a solo hike into the woods provide far more emotional value to us than even some of our biggest purchases.
The truth of the matter is that the materialistic impulses we suffer from serve as a double-edged sword. Not only do they reward us with dissatisfaction, but the money we use to satisfy them frequently detracts from our ability to have the experiences that would truly matter.
As Barry Schwartz says so pointedly, “the new car gets us excited – for a while. But before long, it’s just our ride.”
Though the spectrum of simple living ranges from self-imposed asceticism to a subtle denial of crazed consumerism, it remains the answer for many people whose joy has been compromised by things.
In recent years the signposts of those living simply can be seen everywhere. People are throwing things away, making fewer purchases and becoming increasingly self-sufficient. In these ways, they are less dependent upon stuff for pleasure.
Instead, they focus on making due with less “stuff.” By not looking to things for joy (and being let down), they allow themselves to find it elsewhere – in relationships, in experiences, in themselves.
In the end, the difficulty with acquiring new things is that the promises made to you are rarely kept. All the excitement and satisfaction and pleasure you are supposed to draw from the purchase is fleeting. If you want to increase your joy, you need to stop looking in the mall. That’s not where it’s hiding.