On Our Relationship With Things

I have written quite a bit about minimalism in the way that The Minimalists approach the idea of having less stuff. The more things you have, the more time you have to spend organizing, maintaining, and working with your stuff. It takes time to earn enough money to make purchases, to afford the storage space for items, and to fix parts of things that break, or to keep them clean and up to date. Once we have lots of things, we have to think about where we are going put them, we have to move them around if we need something else at any given time, and we need to pack them up and move them if we ever need to move where we live in the future, and we may have to pay to have someone else store them for us.

 

Despite the difficulties that can come from having lots of stuff, it is hard to get out of the mindset that says you should buy more things and always try to acquire bigger and better things. Sometimes, we need some clear thinking to help us remember what is important and what is not when it comes to our stuff. Seneca writes, “understand that a man is sheltered just as well by a thatch as by a roof of gold. Despise everything that useless toil creates as an ornament and an object of beauty. And reflect that nothing except the soul is worthy of wonder; for to the soul, if it be great, naught is great.”

 

In Seneca’s quote we find the idea that what makes us great people, what makes us interesting, and what drives us in interesting and meaningful ways comes from within us. It is our mindset, our worldview, and our goals that determine what value we see and pursue in the world. Effort to obtain lots of things and to have impressive shiny stuff for showing off amount to nothing more than useless toil. The time we spend working so that we can have the bigger and better thing is time that is effectively wasted.

 

The more we feel compelled to have a newer and more expensive car, the more we feel we need a bigger house which will bring a bigger mortgage payment, and the more we feel that we need expensive things in general, the more we will have to work and potentially spend our time doing things we don’t enjoy. We make a trade off, our time (and sometimes our well being, stress, anxiety, and healthy) in exchange for a thing that we think will make us impressive. Sometimes we obtain so many of those things that we end up in a continual cycle of anxiety and stress from the work that we take something more important away from our lives. We risk a point where the things we own occupy all our mental energy and it is fair to question whether we own our stuff or whether it owns us. We may find that life can be more simple and all our needs can be provided without the material possessions we seek, which gives us back time and energy to focus on things that we enjoy and that interest us.

Getting Beyond Economic Success

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be author Colin Wright examines the way we think about and operate as a society around money. He suggests that money has grown in importance and engulfed every aspect and function of our lives in ways that are damaging but often hidden from us. He writes, “As we grow into adults who care about things like self-actualization and happiness defined in ways other than the color-within-the-lines manuals we’ve been provided, we still often limit ourselves to defining happiness in economic terms. If I can make this much money each month, I can leave this soul-sucking job I hate. If I can reduce my expenses, I won’t need to work so much and can free up time to spend on that hobby I’ve been neglecting. If I invest properly now, I may be able to not work at all at some point in the distant future.”

 

Wright argues that money has become our default measurement of success and happiness.  The idea that we can be both happy or successful without large amounts of money does not align with the ways we actually live our lives. We see the story of people getting away from this mode of thinking in movies all the time, but we rarely live our lives with something other than money at the center of all that we do. As a result, our goals, daily routines, and attention are all focused on helping us make more money or use our money.

 

Money itself will not make us happy, but it does provide us with new opportunities. I recently listened (I think to an episode of Tyler Cowen’s podcast but I can’t remember) to an economist suggest that money does not make us more happy above a certain level, but that our level of life satisfaction does continue to increase as we have more money. Our overall happiness may not continue to increase as we have more money, but having more money seems to open up new possibilities in our lives and give us more ability to engage in the world in a satisfying manner.

 

A question we should think about, is whether there is a way to change how we approach life so that we can have a high level of satisfaction without needing ever more money. Does our satisfaction come from distinguishing ourselves from others by purchasing court side tickets to the game? Do we get satisfaction from displaying our status with a large RV? Is our satisfaction contingent upon fancy trips and traveling to exotic places? I don’t know if there is specific research around this idea, but perhaps we can shift what we use on an individual level as our default for success away from money and begin to find more satisfaction in our lives in things that are more meaningful than purchasing expensive and fancy items that show off to our Facebook friends and broadcast our status. Exactly what the alternate version of success will be for us will likely vary from person to person, but it will probably favor relationships and connections with others over material possessions and purchases.

Continuing on The One

In my previous post I wrote about the common story we tell ourselves about romantic relationships and marriages that focuses on a single person fulfilling us and make us happy. Author Colin Wright calls this idea the Policy of The One in his book, Some Thoughts on Relationships. Wright thinks the idea is not just wrong, but it is potentially harmful for how we view ourselves in the world, and how we view ourselves in relationships. A better approach, he suggests, is to recognize that we are full people on our own and that we have choice in relationships and can rationally structure our relationships rather than simply hoping to find someone who is a magical fit. In his book he writes, “You are The One. You are the only person in the world who can complete and fulfill you, and ensure your happiness. You are born complete, you die complete, and you decide whom you spend your time with between.”

I am particularly fond of Wrights quote because it reflects what I have seen in successful relationships personally and in those around me. It is great to be in a dependable marriage where you have another person who can provide love, support, and stability, but Wright (and I) would argue that you cannot reciprocate those qualities without first being comfortable and confident in yourself, in knowing that you are a complete human being. Understanding yourself and knowing who you are on your own will make you a better partner in any relationship. Not understanding yourself and not being complete on your own makes it hard for you to truly be honest and connect with another person.

This is where Wright argues that the policy of The One breaks down in an unfavorable way. Believing that you are not complete on your own or without another person in some ways limits your ability to be your true self. Failing to be your true self takes away from what you can provide to another person in not just a romantic relationship but in any relationship. This view limits your possibilities and can lead to poor decisions in relationships as you begin to think out of fear and not out of confidence.

Self reflection can help us see who we are, and understanding that relationships can help us grow, adopt new perspectives, and learn more about ourselves should encourage us to seek strong relationships with others. But seeking out relationships to fulfill ourselves or to make ourselves whole takes away from who we are, and limits what we can be in a relationship. Assuming we are not whole without another person means that we cannot learn, grow, and adjust, in relationships, and that we are dependent on another person to fulfill ourselves and our potential on this planet. Turning this perspective around we can see that on our own we can be complete, and that in relationships we can find new areas of growth to be more for ourselves and for those around us.

Understanding Yourself

Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor during the years 161 to 180, kept a journal that he continually returned to with all of his thoughts and values. His journal was published after his death as a collection called Meditations, and in his journal he makes constant references to the importance of self-control, self-reflection, and rational thought.  He combines these ideas with social challenges and presents a view of he world that resonates with people to this day.  Regarding how we should think about ourselves relative to others and how we should think about our own joy Aurelius wrote the following.

 

“He who loves fame considers another man’s activity to be his own good; and he who loves pleasure, his own sensations; but he who has understanding, considers his own acts to be his own good.”

 

Aurelius constantly focuses on the idea that we are independent from the actions, thoughts, and judgements of those around us. In his mind we may all be connected, but we choose how to allow others to move and shape our lives.  It is the way that we decide to think about the world and interpret the actions of others that determines how the actions of those around us impact us.

 

In the first part of the quote Aurelius is showing that those who desire fame and popularity depend on the thoughts of other people to find their happiness. To them, their own thoughts about themselves matter less than the thoughts that other people have of them.
In the second part, the Emperor explains that people who live for nothing other than their own pleasure have submitted their own independence to material things or physical pleasures. Their enjoyment and life’s meaning comes from what they can obtain as opposed to a recognition of who they are.  They have made the world around them more important than themselves, and their value and happiness is based not on the person who they are, but on the items in their lives that make them happy.

 

Lastly, Aurelius argues that those who bring rational thought into all aspects of their lives are the most fulfilled. Since we all determine through out own thoughts what is good in our lives and what is bad, what is going to help us and what will harm us, and what is important and what is not, we have the power to determine how we see the world.  The people who base their lives on rational thought are able to reflect on what happens around them and rely on their own decisions and actions to find happiness. They may find some level of fame and material well being, but rather than finding inspiration in things and popularity, they are inspired and moved by the things that they can do to better themselves and others.  They are not dependent on others for their own happiness because they understand who they are, and have an ability to determine how they react to the world around them.

All of Our Stuff

The Most Good You Can Do is a book written by Peter Singer about a philosophy known as effective altruism.  Those who follow the philosophy are characterized by making large donations and directing greater than 10% of their income to charities and organizations that make meaningful changes in the lives of those who are the most disadvantaged.  Effective altruists are focused on making sure that the good they do by making financial donations is maximized. In this pursuit, they look for new ways to save their money for donations, and for charities that direct almost 100% of the donations they receive toward their cause as opposed to administration, fundraising, or lobbying.

 

Singer argues that more Americans should move toward the lifestyle of effective altruism even though it would mean we would have more people moving away from the standard focus of capitalism which is buying more goods with the money we have for our own happiness.  Throughout his book he shares the stories of effective altruists who make large scale donations despite having modest or average incomes.  He shows that a life focused on helping others builds a sense of purpose that is greater than the joy we receive by owning things.  He advocates that Americans should better budget their money and make more stringent decisions about what they choose to purchase if they want to live happier and more fulfilling lives.

 

“An in-depth study of thirty-two families in Los Angeles found that three-quarters of them could not park their cars in their garages because the garages were too full of stuff. The volume of possessions was so great that managing them elevated levels of stress hormones in mothers.  Despite the fact that the growth in size of the typical American home means that americans today have three times the amount of space, per person, that they had in 1950, they still pay a total of $22 billion a year to rent extra storage space.”

 

Singer uses this example to show that our spending and purchasing is getting in the way of our true happiness.  By having so much stuff we are building more stress in our lives, and repurposing space to better accommodate all of our possessions. Rather than enjoying our space and having leisure time, many Americans are crammed into cluttered spaces and must spend a large amount of time organizing, cleaning, and managing their stuff.

 

“Perhaps we imagine that money is important to our well-being because we need money to buy consumer goods, and buying things has become an obsession that beckons us away from what really advances our well-being.” Singer writes this passage to explain that our purchasing power and habits have not helped us have richer lives, even though our lifestyles may be richer.  What he would advocate for, I believe, is a better use of our financial resources, stricter uses of our money, and a refocused interest in helping others.

Sacrifices: Money & Well-being

Peter Singer provides us with an alternative way of looking at money and the sacrifices we make in his book The Most Good We Can Do. He suggests that we change the way we look at money and begin to better understand our relationships with money.  Ultimately, what is suggested is that we begin to devalue money and it’s importance in our lives relative to other finite resources that we may give up in exchange for the opportunity or the ability to make more money. Singer writes,

 

“Money, however, is not an intrinsic good. Rather than saying that something is a sacrifice if it will cause you to have less money, it would be more reasonable to say that something is a sacrifice if it causes you to have a lower level of well-being, or in a word, be less happy.”

 

What he first establishes in his quote is the idea that money is not a given and set construct of the human experience. It is a social measurement used to organize people into an economic system, and it is a byproduct of many social factors including, hard work, luck, creativity, and progress.  Singer explains money as something separate from our own happiness and our true experience. This has the effect of moving money to a secondary tier in our lives rather than a primary goal.  By seeking out a lifestyle that provides us with more well-being, flexibility, and happiness, as Singer’s quote suggests, we can adopt a lifestyle where our money is a secondary goal that follows in line with our efforts.

 

His quote does not seem to suggest that money is not important or that we should adopt vagabond lifestyles that don’t require us to work or earn money, but it simply makes money less of an important factor.  If we focus on what will help us be more happy we can move in a direction that may not be as lucrative in the long run, but may provide us with greater flexibility and comfort, which will have a positive impact on our well-being and that of our families.  He is almost suggesting a direct approach to well-being with an oblique approach to wealth building, which is more or less the opposite of the way most of us think. We often set out on a direct path to earn more and make more, which we believe will make us happier. Happiness is sought after in an oblique manner because our primary goals are greater wealth and greater consumerism with the hopes of building happiness. Singer would argue that we should seek well-being and understand sacrifices in terms of values outside of money to reach a lifestyle that is comfortable and productive. In this view, once we reach that level, the money will suffice and our lives will be more enjoyable and based around things that add more value to our lives than stress.

Cheerful Sacrifices

Peter Singer in The Most Good You Can Do recounts a quote from an effective altruist who visited Singer’s classroom to speak to his students, “We don’t need people making sacrifices that leave them drained and miserable.  We need people who can walk cheerfully over the world, or at least do their damnedest.” The speaker was an effective altruist named Julia who faced the challenge of making donations to help others but maintaining a lifestyle that was comfortable enough for her to be a happily functioning human being. Interestingly, Julia’s quote pulls from a quote from the founder of the Quakers, George Fox, who said that Quakers should be an example and “walk cheerfully over the world.” What Julia’s quote shows is the importance about doing positive work because it feels good, and because it helps us add value to our lives. If we start doing positive work only because we do not want to feel guilty, we miss the point of giving whether it be our time, money, or resources.

Julia’s argument toward making donations is that in order to fulfill yourself and have the energy and passion required to continue to thrive, earn money, donate money, and inspire others, you need to be able to live with a budget that allows for spending on yourself and things that can help provide happiness, while at the same time donating as much as possible. An effective altruist would contribute a large amount of money toward meaningful causes, but they would see that they would be the most effective if they were able to convince others who are financially successful to do the same. Living a life where others perceive you as living out of a cardboard box does not inspire other’s to adopt a lifestyle of giving and sacrificing.

I have recently started listening to the podcast The Minimalist, and in the show the hosts address the same idea. Having things and purchasing items for oneself is not a bad thing, the hosts contend, if the items being purchased bring you joy and can serve a purpose.  When you are purchasing items for yourself and your own enjoyment without those items bringing you any joy or serving any purpose, then you are just obtaining more things. The podcast hosts would argue that eliminating some of what you had bought or that reducing your spending would actually help you have more time, since you would not be managing “things”, and give you more flexibility to do what you would like to do to help others and impact the world. Combining the thoughts of the minimalists with Julia and her quote above shows that we can support ourselves and enjoy our resources, but that we can find greater fulfillment by making donations and living a life focused on helping others rather than living a life focused on acquiring goods.

The End Goals of our Goals

Colin Wright focuses on self awareness throughout his book Considerations and he turns that inward focus toward our goals and desires for life.  Specifically he writes about bucket list items and goals we aspire to reach.  What Wright explains is that we often set up goals with the hopes of impressing other people. Our goals are chosen not because we actually want to achieve them or because we desire the things that come with reaching that goal, but instead we choose our goals based on how impressive they sound or how they will make us look relative to our peers. When comparing actual goals to bucket list items Wright states, “…rather than cataloging goals we actually have aspirations to achieve, we list things that are very impressive and intense-sounding for the sake of being associated with those types of activities.” What Wright is establishing is the idea that we are not focusing on ourselves in goal setting, but what others want or expect from us.

 

Wright continues to explain the difference between choosing goals that are for yourself rather than for others and ends this chapter in his book with the following, “in short, make sure your goals are for you, not for others’ perception of your. This applies to all goals, not just those on some sort of bucket list.”

 

I want to share this quote, or perhaps the entire section of Wright’s book, with every high school and college student in the country. So often it is easy to have expectations in your mind about what success is, but that vision of success does not always align with who you truly are, and what you truly desire.  Pushing towards success by achieving what others have decided is a worthy definition of success, as opposed to understanding and creating your own definition of success, can lead you down paths that are not enjoyable and do not lead to happiness.

 

For me, a major challenge throughout college was developing the self awareness to understand what visions of success I had and where those visions came from.  Growing up watching Top Gear had build success in my mind as a fancy sports car, and growing up in a nice house gave me certain expectations for how success translated into a home.  Evaluating myself and what my definition of success was allowed me to understand what was important in life and what was not. Once I decided that I did not need to achieve a certain monetary level of success, drive sports cars, or live in a giant house, much of the stress I felt melted away.  It is difficult to look inward and understand what sets the foundation for the goals we have, and it is even more difficult to begin to develop those goals on our own without feeling the pressure of what society and family expect from us.

Self-Centeredness

Self-centeredness and materialism are two of the topics Richard Wiseman touches on in his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot.  Wiseman looks at how making purchases affects our happiness, and compares spending money on items versus spending money on experiences.  As he explains, research suggests that spending money on experiences leads to greater and more sustained happiness by creating social interactions leading to positive memories and stories for the future.

Wiseman continues to dive into the world of shopping and happiness and explains a study by Elizabeth Dunn which evaluated peoples scores on a questionnaire meant to measure their level of materialism. The study asked what the individuals would do if they had $40,000 to spend. “Materialists spend, on average, three times as much on things for themselves as they do on things for others,” Wiseman writes, “Also, when they are asked to rate statements about the degree to which they care for others (“i enjoy having guests stay in my house,” “I often lend things to my friends”), they end up giving far more self-centered responses.”  Wiseman’s section on materialism is not surprising.  Our culture pushes us to want to be impressive and to make purchases that will display our success and high status.  The research shows that people who are more materialistic tend to also act in more self-centered ways.  Wiseman continues to explain Dunn’s research, “from the perspective of happiness, this self-centeredness can have a detrimental effect on people’s happiness.”

What Wiseman explains is that our brains are wired to make us social creatures.  We depend on and rely on others, and when it comes to spending money to make us happy, purchasing experiences that can bring us closer to others is more effective than purchasing items for ourselves.

I am currently working on a book called Return on Character by Fred Kiel, in which he examines leaders in the business world, their character, and the performance of their enterprise.  What Kiel’s research shows is that those CEO’s who tend to be more self-focused don’t produce the same results as CEO’s who are more caring, empathetic, and operate with a strong character.  This is in line with Wiseman’s findings about happiness and self-centeredness. Those CEO’s who are self-focused are more likely to be materialistic, less likely to be happy, and don’t stick to the same values and morals that drive the (as Kiel puts them) virtuoso CEO’s.  When your company is run by people who are less happy and act in self-centered ways, the leadership team is likely to be less interactive with employees, and they are less likely to create a work environment based on integrity and positivity.  This in turn can bring the entire company apart, as apposed to creating an organization that pulls all of its members together.

Buying Happiness

In his book 59 Seconds Richard Wiseman examines people’s attempts to buy happiness. He takes a scientific approach to the question by studying academic experiments aimed at studying how money impacts happiness, and if purchases can really increase happiness.  Wiseman also considered how long different types of purchases will sustain your happiness in an attempt to find the best way to spend your extra money. An experiment by psychologists Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich served as the base for Wiseman’s research, and not surprisingly, Wiseman found that experiences made people happier for longer periods of time.  Van Boven and Gilovich asked people to rate the way an act of purchasing an item made them feel at that moment, and how they felt later on. Wiseman summarizes why purchasing experiences had a greater happiness factor than purchasing items,

 

“Our memory of experiences easily becomes distorted over time (you edit out the terrible trip on the airplane and just remember those blissful moments relaxing on the beach).  Our goods however tend to lose their appeal by becoming old, worn-out, and outdated.  Also, experiences promote one of the most effective happiness-inducing behaviors — Spending time with others.  Sociability might be part of the experience itself, or it might happen when you tell people about the occasion afterward.  In contrast, buying the latest or most expensive new product can sometimes isolate you from friends and family who may be jealous of the things that you have.”

 

Wiseman shows that the best way to be happy is to connect with others, and that those who emphasize material gains risk pushing others away.  He continues on in his book to explain the differences between highly materialistically driven individuals and those who are not as driven by material goals.  Those who view success as a community effort are more likely to want to spend time with those around them and also enjoy the successes of others as much as their own.  These people are more likely to spend their money on others or group experiences that bring people together instead of purchasing personal items. Wiseman and the research he studied suggested that this use of money will help connect people and build positive memories of the past. Buying fancy items however will lead to decreased happiness in the long run with the item purchased becoming worn out or out of style and serving as a constant reminder of the money that went toward the purchase.