Excesses and Externalities

The Problem with our Excesses

My previous post was about our desires to live a life that never involves any pain or suffering. We try to build a life for ourselves and our loved ones where every moment is happy, and where we never have to engage in drudgery, never experience physical discomfort, and never face any obstacles. Today’s post looks at another related aspect of our lives and mindsets that Sam Quinones highlights in his book Dreamland as part of our current opioid crisis: excesses.

 

Quinones is critical of our capitalistic culture that creates a message of buying things to find happiness, fulfillment, and meaning. The marketing departments of everything from soap companies, life insurance companies, to take-out restaurants suggests that happiness is right around the corner, as long as we are willing and able to buy more of what they offer. It is owning something bigger, having more, and expanding our consumption that is branded as a good life. But as Quinones sees it, “Excess contaminated the best of America.”

 

I studied public policy and I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts with economists. A common idea in the world of public policy and the mind of economists is the idea of externalities, secondary consequences of policies and peoples actions. Some externalities are positive, such as people developing a sense of civic pride after participating in an election, but many externalities are negative, such as green house gasses polluting the planet as we drive to and from work. What Quinones describes with the quote above, is the reality that our drive for excesses produces negative externalities that damage our planet and ultimately ruin the lifestyle that we chase.

 

By always wanting more, wanting it faster, and wanting it more tailored to our specific desires to make us feel like royalty, we have put ourselves in a place that is unsustainable. Our single use plastic bags have trashed our cities and open spaces. Having our individual cars to drive to everyplace we want to go emits more pollution than a well developed public transportation infrastructure. Over-purchasing consumer goods produces more garbage that has to go someplace.

 

This post has simply highlighted the reality that we live with negative externalities, and that our consumer driven culture is creating externalities which poison the planet. Quinones throughout his book focuses on the idea that our culture’s excesses have fueled the opioid epidemic by turning us inward toward our own wants versus encouraging us to think of others and how we can work together as part of a community. I think he is correct, and I think the space to start in making a change is by getting people to truly reflect on their lives, their purchases, and what they pursue. As Ryan Holiday put it in Stillness is the Key, “Eventually one has to say the e-word, enough. or the world says it for you.”

 

The way out of our opioid crisis, and indeed the way out of so many of our problems today, is to say enough to our own selfish desires. We need to stop the negative externalities that we produce when we purely pursue our own selfish ends, and instead we need to embrace our communities and put others first, to create more positive externalities which can heal our communities and fill the empty holes that consumerism leaves inside of us.

Seneca on Riches

Do you actually enjoy the things that you have? Have you become accustomed to the things in your life and do you even notice them? Does your stuff frustrate you and do you worry over your stuff? Are you living in a way where the things that you have are an aid to your life and serve to constantly make you a little more happy, or as soon as you have something do you feel remorse for spending so much to get it, and when you see it are you reminded of the cost to own the thing?

 

In my life, there have been many things that I wanted, but that quickly became part of my status quo and forgotten. Things that required me to spend time maintaining them or that did end up making me as happy as I expected, causing remorse over my impulsive purchase. It is remarkable how quickly a new home can become normal, and how our wonders at having a home can fade into frustration when we have to keep it clean or when another Friday night rolls around and we have nothing to do and no where to go so we dejectedly sit around inside. We spend a lot of time working to make money and often end up buying things that quickly become our new normal and don’t provide us with a continual source and stream of satisfaction.

 

“He who needs riches least, enjoys riches most.” Seneca writes in Letters From a Stoic quoting Epicurus. It is when we become accustomed to the bounty from our wealth and success that we become dependent on our things. Those items which fade to our background and become the status quo start to be our masters, and instead of feeling grateful for having what we have, we just assume that having the thing is what life is supposed to be like.

 

One of the ways that I have been able to get away from these types of moods is by avoiding advertising. Everywhere you go and every time you watch something, somebody seems to be presenting you with an image of an ideal life. That life is always full of friends and laughter, but it is also full of new shiny stuff. We are constantly urged to buy a new car, a new fridge, a new coffee maker, better sheets, a better toothbrush, and each day we are exposed to ads for something new. Overtime, these advertisements push certain expectations for what a happy and successful life is supposed to be into our minds. By being aware of our stuff, our emotions, and the dizzying storm of advertisements we encounter each day we can push back against the feeling that we always need new stuff, and we can start to better enjoy the things we actually have.

 

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.

Thoughtful Friendships

Last week I listened to an interview with The Minimalists on the Kevin Rose Show. The Minimalists have been in my orbit for quite a while and generally focus on an approach the world based on what is necessary and what adds true value to our lives as opposed to chasing every little thing that we think we want. When we step back and look critically at the things in our life and ask ourselves why we have certain things and if we truly need them, we can begin to do more with less and remove stressful clutter.

 

One area that was briefly mentioned in the podcast was friendship and how we can bring a type of minimalist approach to our friendships. The idea was not that we should have a bare minimum number of friends in our lives, but rather that we should be thoughtful about who we spend our time with. We should look at the friends around us and ask if our friendship is beneficial for us or for our friend, ask what type of benefit and value we receive from our friendship, and ultimately we should consider whether our friendship makes us but better and happier people. This means we avoid trying to befriend people who are popular, powerful, and wealthy but generally don’t live in a way that would help us be the best versions of ourselves. We should let go of poisonous relationships that lead us to do things we don’t really want to do or lead us to become people that we don’t like.

 

Seneca wrote about this in Letters From a Stoic almost 2,000 years ago, “Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart.” Seneca is also encouraging us to be thoughtful with our friends and to be choosy with the people we spend our time with. Rather than using friendship to try to move up a career or financial ladder, and rather than using friendship to try to look more popular, our friendships should be with people who help us think more deeply about the world, help us engage with the world in a meaningful way, and can be loyal people that we can open up with about our challenges in a way that is healthy for both of us. Once again, this doesn’t mean that we should not have any friends, but that we should work to cultivate meaningful and close friendships.