I don’t desire to live in a tiny home, nor do I desire to part with all of my possessions. But there is something to be said about the idea that we are owned by what we possess. If you own a huge home and hope to keep it pristine, you’ll spend hours cleaning or forking over money on a housecleaner. If you compare your possessions, cars, and clothes with those of your neighbor, you’ll spend needless mental energy comparing your stuff and toiling to acquire more.
My high school students are immensely preoccupied with possessions. Sure, it’s probably a teenage phenomenon, but the extent to which I see 16-year olds obsess over new phones, shoes, and video games–versus joining organizations, desiring to excel in their respective sports, or stockpiling new experiences–makes me wonder just how a large percentage of us have feverishly been entranced by the holy grail of material consumption.
Is it widespread media saturation of brand names, mansions, and celebrity lifestyles? Is it the ease with which we can purchase anything online? Is it a lower-cost of consumer goods? Is it the desire to one-up each other?
Our fondness for stuff affects almost every aspect of our lives. Housing size, for example, has ballooned in the last 60 years. The average size of a new American home in 1950 was 983 square feet; by 2011, the average new home was 2,480 square feet. And those figures don’t provide a full picture. In 1950, an average of 3.37 people lived in each American home; in 2011, that number had shrunk to 2.6 people. This means that we take up more than three times the amount of space per capita than we did 60 years ago.
You’d expect that our bigger houses and faster, more tech-equipped cars would bring more life satisfaction and happiness, which are, admittedly, subjective measures.
Endless consumption does not result in increased happiness, largely due to what psychologists call hedonic adaptation. Purchasing and upgrading endlessly brings short-term satisfaction, but no long term contentment–we get used to what we own, get antsy, then feel the need to obtain a jolt of shallow happiness from new shiny objects.
In reflecting on the past or contemplating the future, people are happier when they have experiences on their minds than when they have things on their minds. And the higher a person’s income is, the bigger the disparity between the joys of doing and the joys of having. Moreover, we don’t adapt to doing to the same degree that we adapt to having. The museum trip, the hike, the bike ride in the hills, the informal dinner with friends keep satisfying long after the Mercedes has stopped providing a thrill.
Spending money on hobbies or vacations seems to fit into the having and doing category–this is where I find I dip into the savings account. Bow-hunting equipment and accessories are expensive, but the consumption also fuels one of my passions. Same with collecting books. The last thing I want to do is buy a new car. Ever. Nor do I see myself jockeying for a new job, resulting in a huge pay raise, if it significantly affects the quality of what I am able to do.
I’ll take doing over having any–or most:)–days of the week.
How about yourself? What do you think is the number one force driving consumerism today? What about expectations for increased house size? How do you embrace the balance between doing and having? Anybody out there get sustained happiness? from accumulating stuff?