Monday, December 1, 2008

The Happiness of Things

What I had started out to write in my blog entry last time - and never quite got to - was that we were much happier as a people (or so the polls told us) before the advent of the consumer society. Perhaps a movement away from hyper-industrial production, mimicking a war economy, would actually allow us to return to a way of life that was happier and more fulfilling for those of us who are not making the huge profits from this absurd financial experiment gone wrong. 

I've noticed that when someone tends to hold onto things rather than throwing them away, people will say it's because they - or their parents - grew up during the depression. For a long time, I simply accepted this bit of common wisdom without question. Now I'm not so sure. From what I understand of the world before the Great Depression, people had the ingrained habit of conserving rather than consuming and discarding their resources. This was not because of any poverty or miserliness, but rather because they had not been introduced to the throw-away culture that we live in today. This was before built in obsolescence, when things were not only made to last a lifetime, but also to reflect the skills and aesthetics of the maker. 

We live in an older home, built in 1915, and its construction reflects these values. Even the radiator covers, such humble creations, are works of art - and have lasted for nearly 100 years. What products made today have any such expectation? Even the houses we live in that were built more recently have a shorter life expectancy. And as much as I love my Macintosh computer, I know that it is already on the verge of being obsolete after only a little over two years. If I want to keep up with the rapidly developing internet and software, I will need to "upgrade" within another year or so. But do I need to? Do I really need to?

I remember very little of my childhood, but I do have some surreal mental snapshots of being very small and there being a room in the house with some boxes piled on a couch. I suspect I wasn't allowed in the room, nor in the boxes, and so they took on an aura of mystery and treasure far beyond anything they might actually contain. I have a vague memory of creeping into the room - I must have been five or six years old - and opening the box to find a curved bronze dagger in a bronze sheath, something that my Dad had picked up on his travels. There was a magic to that chunk of metal that I've never felt from any mass-produced object of any kind. 

So - what have we lost? And what can we regain? I believe that this most recent economic crisis is nothing less than the long over-due response to an artificial economy, and that it can allow us - at least those who take the opportunity to do so - to return to an economic footing similar to that our parents or grandparents would recognize from their own early years. This would mean making some fundamental changes in how we live our lives. With a basic value on "conserve rather than consume" we could put more of our income into savings. We might take another look at things we spend money on and decide that we really don't need more than one television; a cable service with over 100 channels; a new car every three years; new clothes every season; gadgets that we are going to throw out in less than a year; or anything that we are able to live a happy and fulfilling life without. We might even begin to dismiss the idea that have been drummed into us by advertising over the past several decades: That we must consume in order to be a productive member of society. 

This is not to say that I am some sort of enlightened zen master, no longer attached to material things. On the contrary, I rather like my material things. As I was sitting in our Temple room with Patricia this morning, I was noticing how much I enjoy and am comforted by our "things". To some extent, this is because these objects express and reflect our shared aesthetic, and seeing them gives me an illusion of permanence. It is a way in which we extend ourselves into the world around us and claim our territory. With these objects, we say: "I am here! This is my space - my part of the ever-changing world." 

It seems to me that all of the pieces fit together. The throw-away aesthetic leads to shoddy workmanship and to a greater sense of impermanence. This also leads to people spending beyond their means, because they are told that happiness is to be found in having the latest widget, in the most popular color. And of course, it isn't. If the polls are any indication, happiness was something we found in much greater measure back in the days when we put our money into savings and purchased things that would last as long as we did; when our happiness was based on the health and well being of our loved ones; the closeness and companionship of friends; and, on our own spiritual connection with the wholeness of the world. 

Perhaps this crisis is a blessing in a this disguise. If we have to pare back our spending this year and focus on those things that are both free and priceless, it's not such a bad thing. 




Candace said...


I was just in Japan, which is barely starting to come out of a recession (resulting from a real estate bubble) that’s lasted for well over a decade. This hasn't brought back a pre-consumerist golden era or made people value craftsmanship. The Japanese, especially young people, have become more cynical and hopeless. Many small businesses have gone under. The rate of addiction and unemployment is up. But the Japanese are probably more obsessed with gadgets, video games and pachinko than ever. It’s true that they can’t afford the absurdly priced hostess bars anymore and they seem less arrogant than in the early 90’s, but people don’t seem happier.

I’ve always been a fanatical saver. Until this year I never paid more than $8K for a car even though I could have afforded a new car every few years. I’ve never had cable TV. We haven't remodeled our ugly kitchen. Except for a few luxuries (international travel, a professional quality bassoon, weekly sessions for both of us with you, retreats) Jeff and I have saved everything. Our reward: the loss of a big chunk of those savings. If we'd spent some of that money on cars and remodels and big screen TVs, at least we’d have the stuff. Ordinary middle class people who’ve forgone luxuries and saved diligently have lost large percentages of their savings. It is also true that some people who spent beyond their means are being forced to cut back, but I’m not seeing any fundamental shift in values happening with those folks, at least not the ones I know personally.

Post Tribal Shaman said...

2 things: 1) Obviously I was not referring to you are people like you (or me) who already live from this value set. 2) No one has lost savings. That's the big difference between this and the Great Depression. Then, if a bank went bust, all the depositors lost everything. Now, the deposits are federally insured up to $250,000 (?). The value of the stock shares has fallen dramatically, but the number of shares is still there, and as long as the funds remain in place, the investments remain and will most likely regain their value.

Midwest Gal said...

Yes, I agree so much with this. I get teased a lot because my TV is 13", my car is 12 years old, and I don't have such things as a cell phone or PDA. I definitely feel the same way about my old house, too -- it was there before me and it will be there after I'm gone, hopefully to be enjoyed by someone who appreciates its unique character.