A challenge in our world today is to be content without the need for too many things. We are constantly bombarded with advertisements about things we could buy and about how happy we would be if we had more stuff. We attach material possessions to lifestyles and people, and in some ways we look toward things to define people. Advertisements and mental images work because we believe them, but they don’t truly reflect the reality of the world around us or what would make us happy.
In Letters to a Stoic, Seneca writes, “the Stoic also can carry his goods unimpaired through cities that have been burned to ashes; for he is self-sufficient. Such are the bounds which he sets to his own happiness.” The quote is part of a larger passage about finding happiness in oneself and in the world around us rather than in our things or specific items that we might want. Stoic philosophy, as Seneca describes, encourages us to avoid the desire for stuff, because stuff can be taken away from us, burned down, or never attained in the first place.
What we need for happiness, Seneca suggests, is simply our mental faculties. An awareness of and appreciation for life that isn’t dependent on what we own, the quality of our clothes, or price tag of our car. Unlike the way of thought that we tend to fall into in America, where we associate being a lawyer with owning a sports car, associate being a runner with owning an expensive GPS watch, and associate being a hipster with owning expensive glasses, stoicism encourages happiness through relationships, and an appreciation of simple, yet wondrous moments of life. Indeed, having lots of stuff can take the wonder out of life and fill it with the stress of managing finances, space, and security of possessions.
Johann Hari doesn’t believe that the answer to solving our nation’s drug problems lies in locking up drug users and dealers. He doesn’t believe that those who develop addictions are some type of moral failure. He doesn’t think that what we need is better enforcement of laws, more policing, and better deterrence through the criminal legal process. What Hari believes is necessary is that we focus on reducing the harms of illicit drug use, and start asking larger questions about what motivates all of us, and how we interact and connect with one another.
There is a larger addiction than drug addiction that Hari is concerned about, addiction to consumption in general. As a culture, the United States has spent years believing that we could be content and happy in our own homes, as long as we can buy lots of things to fill our homes. We moved to suburbs where we could drive to and from work, park our cars in our garages, hire people to do our yard work, and never have to see or interact with people we don’t know. We watch TV, scroll through social media, and stay inside where it is safe and where we can be around our possessions.
“We all know deep down it doesn’t make us happy,” Hari Writes, “to be endlessly working to buy shiny consumer objects we have seen in advertisements. But we keep doing it, day after day. It in fact occupies most of our time on earth. We could slow down. We could work less and buy less. It would prevent the environment – our habitat – from being systematically destroyed. But we don’t do it, because we are isolated in our individual cages. In that environment, the idea of consuming less, in fact, fills us with panic.”
Across the United States we have developed an addiction to consumerism. We have lost the sense of community that has held together human beings for our evolutionary history, and we have limited our interactions with people in the outside world to meaningless transactions. We then criticize those who cannot find meaning in our consumerism and turn to drugs. We failed to provide them with a community and real relationships with other humans, and as a result people turned to drugs and we further outcasted them. Our consumerism has many negative externalities, and Hari would argue that isolation and addiction are consequences of our consumer culture. To solve drug addiction, he believes, requires that we re-think our ideas of consumerism, and start to look more toward re-engagement with community over individual purchases of things.
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.