How Much is Enough? Pt. 2
One of the things we lose from an insatiable desire for more is time. Or, more specifically, time for rest. As I mentioned in last week’s post on the same subject, and as crazy as it may now seem, early proponents of capitalism imagined that eventually we would become so efficient that the demand for our work would shrink and our leisure time (understood as time devoted to pursuing culturally enriching tasks) would grow.
A recent study from UCLA, and as reported in the Boston Globe, indicates that’s far from the reality most U.S. households experience. In their book Life at Home in the Twenty-first Century, the researchers describe their in-depth interviews and tracking of 32 households in the Los Angeles area and share their discovery that even as Americans have accumulated more stuff they have increasingly less time to enjoy it or even to find space to store it. Here are a few of the findings:
The rise of Costco and similar stores has prompted so much stockpiling — you never know when you’ll need 600 Dixie cups or a 50-pound bag of sugar — that three out of four garages are too full to hold cars.
Managing the volume of possessions is such a crushing problem in many homes that it elevates levels of stress hormones for mothers.
Even families who invested in outdoor décor and improvements were too busy to go outside and enjoy their new decks.
Most families rely heavily on convenience foods even though all those frozen stir-frys and pot stickers saved them only about 11 minutes per meal.
Lead researcher Jeanne E. Arnold was particularly distressed about how little time family members had to spend outside. As the Globe reports,
“Something like 50 of the 64 parents in our study never stepped outside in the course of about a week,” she said. “When they gave us tours of their house they’d say, ‘Here’s the backyard, I don’t have time to go there.’ They were working a lot at home. Leisure time was spent in front of the TV or at the computer.”
Somewhere along the way in our pursuit for the “American Dream” we’ve ended up in capitalism’s hell of needing always to produce and consume more. Lest I be misunderstood, I have a tremendous regard for capitalism’s ability to generate and distribute wealth. But it is a value-less system. Or, actually, it’s values are efficiency and growth which, left unchecked, can enslave us; indeed, have enslaved many of us by depriving us of time for rest, relaxation, and renewal.
On of the interesting things about all this is that more and more research points to the critical role rest plays in not just happiness but efficiency, one of capitalism’s chief goals. I found this report from the website Big Think particularly interesting. Jason Gots interview Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow, author of Sleeping with Your Smartphone, and discovered the following:
In a project with Boston Consulting Group, Perlow attempted in a very small way to switch off the always-on culture, and study what happened. She calls BCG “an extreme case” – an “elite professional service firm, where people are always on and that’s really the expectation and the client really does call and the client really does pay large sums of money.”
With stakes so high at BCG, it required a huge collaborative effort to implement a very small change – giving each worker one night per week off the grid after 6pm. It also took regular reviews and reminders to convince workers really, truly to take that little bit of time off. But once they changed this little bit of company culture, the employees and the organization noticed significant ripple effects in the form of smarter collaborative approaches to solving all kinds of problems that everyone had formerly ignored. Workers felt more energized and engaged, and retention rates increased.
Similarly, a recent post at the site Inc. suggests that one of the five steps toward personal happiness is getting rid of a lot of our excess stuff. As Kevin Daum writes,
There is nothing wrong with collecting toys: houses, cars, boats, etc., but these things have a way of owning us, particularly when we finance them. I’ve had my share, and I find that my life is much more free without these possessions. I can still play by renting a convertible or beach house when I want and not feeling guilty for paying for something sitting unused.
Path to Freedom: Make a list of the material needs that truly matter if you were to start over tomorrow. Then sell or give away everything that’s not on that list. Having freedom from lots of stuff and monthly overhead allows you the ability to be agile and to capitalize on bigger and better opportunities.
So two things we can do to maximize our happiness and refuse to give in to the insatiable need for more would seem to be 1) prioritize time spent with family and friends and 2) clear out a lot of the unneeded stuff we have. As it turns out, these two things actually go together: as you resist the urge to accumulate more, you don’t have to work as hard to provide for what you need. By working less to buy less, you may very well end up with more money to devote to other causes and more time to enjoy what you have.
As relatively clear cut and simple as these suggestions may seem, however, they are incredibly hard to implement. Why? Because, as we’ve mentioned already, both of these inclinations – accumulate less and rest and recreate more – run against the cultural tide. Which is why Prof. Perlow’s observation that it took “a huge collaborative effort” for the people at the firm she studied to move in this direction is so very important. We can’t make these kinds of changes alone, which is why creating a sanctuary and support group in and through our congregations is so very important. More about that later. For now, what are your experiences with combating the never-ending urge for more? Where have you found support? And what might your congregation do to support you better?
Note: I’ve written on Sabbath rest in relation to this week’s biblical readings at Working Preacher if you’re interested.