I’ve always had a interest in Eastern philosophy (at the risk of sounding eye-rollingly New-Agey) because what it teaches really resonates with my beliefs. One of those particular beliefs is that the attachment to material things (well, attachment in general, but that’s another post) brings unhappiness.
Now, I love a new pair of heels as much as the next girl. I obsessively buy lip gloss and I do own a car. I’m not a monk and I don’t preach trying out homelessness or renouncing everything you own. However I do have something to say about attachment to these items. I also have something to say about always needing more and more in order to be “happy” and impress others. I am writing about this as a person who just gave away roughly 95% of everything I own, sublet my apartment, and moved to another country with only what small amount I had in savings. So there’s my credentials. Really you could call me an expert… I’m kidding. Sort of.
Cue the scientific part of my discussion:
A Harvard study asked people if they would rather make 50,000 a year if everyone around them was making 25,000 (option A), or if they would rather make 100,000 a year if everyone around them was making 250,000 (option B). Same living conditions, same neighborhood, same prices for goods in both scenarios. The majority of participants actually chose option A. It was more important to be the one making more income than everyone else, even at the expense of 50,000 a year. That’s 50,000 dollars less a year to spend on anything you want, just to be top dog.
We’re some greedy assholes, us humans. But we aren’t the only ones.
Take another study from Emory University. This one is almost comical. Capuchin monkeys were all given cucumber slices as a reward for performing an action. All the monkeys were more than happy to accept and chow down on these. But when grapes were thrown into the mix, a much tastier item, the cucumber-rewarded monkeys would no longer accept their prize. They threw them on the ground or turned their backs on the researchers.
Lets think about this.
As people we are so concerned about status that we would take a 50% cut to our income in order to attain it. Also, evolutionary it seems that we are hard-wired to be unhappy if those around us have bigger & better (even if that comes in the form of a grape). So I do understand the idea behind materialism. I understand the people that get lost in debt to own a house bigger than their neighbors. I understand the guy at the club with the fancy sports car that makes him so broke he lives with his parents. I get it. Status.
But are these people really happy? Does attaining what you want settle the matter and then you are satisfied? Or do people end up wanting the next model, the biggest house on the street, the even more expensive car? Most often they do. Its a vicious cycle. There’s only a small amount of time in which that thing you bought will bring you happiness and then you return to whatever baseline you were at before. This has been researched and documented time and again.
There is a reason why Denmark and Switzerland rank as the happiest countries on the world happiness report index (and the US at number 15, coming in behind Mexico). These countries live a more egalitarian lifestyle. The income discrepancy between the rich and the poor is not as vast a canyon as it is in the United States. Their monkeys are all eating cucumbers. They’re content. (They also offer excellent medical care to their citizens and people tend to live in expanded social structures that offer support and companionship… but that’s a point for another day).
The fact of the matter is, beyond the basics, you do not need stuff to be happy. In fact it’s the very stuff you obsess about that is bringing you unhappiness. You have no idea the relief I felt when I liquidated all of my things. I didn’t sell them. I gave them away to people that really needed them. Couches, tables, shoes, cookware, appliances, whatever… and it felt great. All I really kept wondering is “WHY and HOW in the hell did I accumulate so much stuff?” I can now fit everything I own into a couple suitcases. It’s fantastic.
I now have the freedom to go where I want to go. I spend my money not on accumulating things but on seeing the world. It’s sad to me when people tell me that they can’t travel because they have to work so much. And they only work so much in order to pay for the stupid shit they have that they can’t take with them when they die. And they live an entire life like that. Work, bills, work, bills. Higher bills, more work. We get so wrapped up in these things. Maybe your goal is not to see the world. That’s fine. Work less – by owing less – and just spend your time with your friends and family because it’s also been documented time and again that that is what really brings happiness to the human mind.
Materialism is not an easy thing to overcome. Minimalism is not an easy thing to wrap your head around. Like I said before, it’s programmed into our very nature. But as long as you (and your family) have a roof over your head, food to eat and some clothes to wear I’d say you are doing better than millions of other people. Everything else is just a bonus. How about thinking of that next time you need to feel a status boost? Not so fun right?
Stop spending so much time on buying and start spending time on living. Have stuff but don’t become attached to it and for the love of God do not become a slave to it. If you’re willing to work yourself into the ground for a new car, maybe you should consider readjusting your priorities. If you spend so many hours in the office that you become an asshole and your family hates you, ask yourself if it’s really worth it. Don’t put off enjoying yourself in the future because the future is not guaranteed. You have one beautiful and fleeting life. Nothing else matters than fully living it.