Thursday, December 06, 2007

Is Stuff Happiness?

Madeline Bunting over at the Guardian has a great column titled Eat, drink and be miserable: the true cost of our addiction to shopping that explores our growth economy and it's limitations. It explores the question by highlighting some introducing studies about the effects of wealth and happiness. I'll just quote Bunting:

But there is a madness at the heart of this economic model with its terrible environmental costs. It's best illustrated by a graph used by the US psychologist Tim Kasser at a Whitehall seminar last week. One line, representing personal income, has soared over the past 40 years; the other line marks those who describe themselves as "very happy", and has remained the same. The gap between the two yawns ever wider. All this consumption is not necessary to our happiness.

Now it's clear that stuff isn't critical to being happy, there are many cultures in hunter gatherer cultures where people surveyed are as happy or more than more affluent cultures. So why the gap?

I think much of the resource waste of our economy and unhappiness is a result of what I'm calling the "Promise Economy" Let me start with a confession, I am complete glutton in many ways. I love food, I love dining, I love trying new experiences and I love cool gadgets. I'm in no ways anti-stuff. My house is a cluttered mess of books, papers, electronic gadgets and some of it does get used, but most does not. But all of it was bought with the promise that it would make my life better. And it was sold on that promise that my life would be better. But in most cases, it failed on that promise. Leading to disappointment, and to a certain degree of unhappiness. And the cycle repeats as I look for the item that will make me happy, and buy variants of the same item hoping for that divine moment. So it's not me, but that so much of the stuff we buy is crap, we buy on hope. When we buy truly good stuff it can make us happy.

The reason stuff makes us unhappy is that so much of consumer goods are sold in ridiculous ways, drinking a particular brand of light beer is not going to you the hot girl of the TV commercials. And when it doesn't you're bummed. We expect so much of our consumer goods, and when it fails we look for something else discarding what we just picked up. No wonder why so much consumer culture is sad, it's not because we are satisfied but that we are perpetually disappointed. It reminds me of a saying of an old girlfriend who often would say "the key to happiness is low expectations and comfortable shoes"

This post has rambled on a little longer than expected, but maybe a more concrete example might show what I mean. I have bought many a MP3 player over the years, I bought the Rio, an MP3 player that looked like a cassette that you could play in your cassette player and each time I was disappointed. All of them had the promise of making my life better, but all failed miserably. I eventually bought an iPod, and it worked at a level that was divine. It made me happy because it gave me an experience that I was desiring. It could be argued that all the previous ones I bought were crap, and that my expectations were low that I was pleasantly surprised. While the iPod was great, it wasn't perfect. I later bought an iPod Nano which ironically had less memory, but made me happier since it was smaller and more portable. Sadly for Apple I have no interest in buying a replacement for a long long time. Don't worry a new MacBook is on the horizon.

If you are going to create a goods economy, please try to aim for good stuff. The earth will thank you since there will be less waste.

P.S. Don't worry, once disappointed I try to sell my technology as fast as possible so it doesn't clutter my life and someone gets disappointed with a used item instead of a new one. Meaning less overall crap in the world.


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