We Are Owned By What We Possess

You want to live a life that matters. You believe that there is more to life than stuff, spending money and being in debt.

You want to live consciously. This means you want to be present in every moment. You want to live deliberately.

-Mark Lowe, Minimalist Lifestyle blog

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. 

fuzzie-fredd-living-room-before

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?  

It’s not just an obsessive accumulation of stuff that plagues our culture; expectations for living space has skyrocketed too.  Graham Hill writes in the New York Times:

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.

Wrong.

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.

Most of us would be better off focusing on doing rather than having, according to this summary of research on consumption:

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?

17 thoughts on “We Are Owned By What We Possess

  1. ” people are happier when they have experiences on their minds than when they have things on their minds. ” – i really liked that!

    a few months ago the country of columbia had a very strong earthquake that gave my home in ecuador a really strong one-minute (or more) shaking. we lost power, and i felt certain that the fault line 40 miles down the coast had slipped. although i’ve lived on the pacific coast for a dozen years, i have never had the impulse to go to higher ground – until that moment. i always thought that i’d want to take a few of my possessions with me, but no.. i got my passport and mini laptop and prepared to leave. the laptop so that i could email my loved ones and say that i’m ok…..

    then the power came back on, and i logged online to see that columbia was the location.

    i realized that when it comes to survival, all possessions/assets suddenly mean nothing. it was a great drill for me!

    as to consumerism, i think that peer pressure is the biggest problem in school.. one wants to fit in and not be teased, snubbed or ridiculed if they’re not wearing the trendy garb or using the trendiest gadget. they like the ego of being the first to have new things as well…

    materialism has become a sickness that’s sweeping the cosmopolitan world. do you agree?

    • Thanks for the dispatch from South America! Peer pressure certainly invades all aspects of teenage life, and you’re right to say it has a huge effect on consumerism.
      I agree that materialism can become a sickness–not only spiritually, but for the environment as well.
      On the other hand, I’ve read some critiques of minimalism that say our mass consumption in America (lots of Chinese-made goods) has helped bring millions of rural Chinese out of poverty to cities and manufacturing jobs. I think this argument is a stretch. You?

      • that’s a hard one to guess w/o comparing the quality of life before vs after. a simple life in the country where there’s clean air and immersion in nature vs life in a concrete jungle with pollution and existence. they might be above the poverty level, but are they happy?

  2. I would rather have experiences than keep acquiring more and more stuff. I live in a one bedroom apartment which de facto limits how much stuff my husband and I can acquire. I have very powerful and happy memories of many experiences long after much stuff has been tossed.

    I think Americans are brainwashed to own tons of stuff because so many are tied into jobs with no vacation time. They substitute things for experiences. So few have passports or much of a desire to travel so they keep buying things when they could be having amazing experiences instead.

    • We live in a consumer society, what Robert Heilbroner called a “commodified culture.” As such it is essential for the economy that people buy things they don’t need. As a result, advertising has become a fine art and it permeates our culture, convincing us that we need stuff and selling us the latest “cure” for all our political ills. In a word, we are trading our individuality and freedom for material goods that profit a few and send the rest of us to the bank to take out a loan.

      • Needs vs. wants.
        Think about how high unemployment would be if we didn’t buy so much stuff. It’s scary to think about how much our economy depends on excess consumption.

      • So true! I wish more people were truly conscious of these costs. One of my favorite books is “Your Money or Your Life” which puts it in very stark terms.

    • I’ve also come to de facto limits in my own two bedroom house, and I’ve realized that if my future wife and I upgrade our square footage, there will be a burden of more stuff, moving stuff, etc. I’m not looking forward to it.
      You’re right about jobs with no vacation time. Or jobs with too many hours and demands. I’ve been blessed to travel a good deal. Coupled with my teaching schedule, I can’t imagine working year round with a week or two off.

      • It’s the single major reason I remain self-employed, which costs me probably $40K a year in lost income if I had a “real” job working in an office for someone else. So that’s a lot of money not in my pocket…But then I add the cost of losing 2+ hours every day commuting; the cost of the train ticket, almost $3,000 a year, the cost of not having time to do the things that matter most to me at my speed and on my own sked…I clearly value time over stuff. Because with that extra income I could buy more stuff. But I would lose a lot of time!

  3. Reblogged this on avocadolove and commented:
    I think about these questions all the time. I don’t have the answers but I to someday, come to a place in my life that things don’t matter even in the slightest.

  4. The messages to consume are deep and wide and pervasive. Some tiny piece of a whole breaks, get a new one. Our definition of durable goods has changed in light of planned obsolescence – and we are so busy that we don’t even notice.

    I’m going to share this with my sister-in-law who has a business called Overstuffed in MN, she’s a life coach and starting to focus on this whole idea of unhooking ourselves from the thought that things will bring fulfillment.

    • Thanks for sharing with your sister!
      The throwaway norm is frustrating, too. I’d rather spend more money on an appliance or item that has lasting power than constantly replacing one, that’s for sure.
      With the norm of constantly replacing and upgrading, so few people have the ability to fix anything, which is a shame.

  5. “stockpiling new experiences” – well put. Some people collect experiences (how many people did you sleep with, how many mountains have you climbed, how many extreme sport experiences did you do, how many demonstrations did you go to…). and those experiences can change us, but also bind us, own us, define us. Do I really have to be the sum of my experiences? Can it be other way?
    Getting rid of the Quantity Discourse in favor of the Quality Discourse – that’s a real shift, in the spirit of your moving post. Thanks.

  6. I like my stuff. I like doing stuff too. And the more stuff I acquire, the more stuff I can do. People with stuff are better than people without.

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