Money, Happiness, and Our “Stuff”
So here’s my ongoing question: if we by and large agree that spending money on ourselves doesn’t buy happiness, then why do we regularly act like it does?
I think I’m arriving at an answer. Or, at least, at a partial answer. And I think that partial answer has to do with how intangible “happiness” – or, for that matter, “fulfillment,” “meaning,” or “purpose” – really is. In fact, when you get right down to it, many of the things we say we want most – whether it’s “fulfillment” or “community” or whatever – are really hard to describe.
I mean, what is “community”? What does it look like? How does one form, create, or find it? I think we know it when we experience it, but creating and maintaining it is rather elusive. And that’s just as true, and maybe even more so, for even less tangible words like “joy” or “happiness” or “contentment.”
Which is why I think money is so dang attractive. Because money can buy tangible things. Sure, buying a new pair of shoes, or a laptop, or a car, or just a big ole ice cream cone isn’t the same as “being happy.” But at least it’s tangible. You can point to it, feel it, show it to someone else, even – at least in one case – eat it. Moreover, and maybe most importantly, you can buy it. Which means that the route to obtaining this object is relatively clear and straightforward.
So I think it’s easy for us to substitute tangible and concrete things we can buy for the intangible values we say we cherish. Sure, we’d rather “be happy” than drive a BMW, and we further know that having a BMW isn’t the ticket to happiness (at least not for all that long ), but at least you know how to get a BMW – save up a ton of money or take out a huge auto loan – and once you do it you have something concrete, even beautiful (at least to BMW fans) to show people.
And what’s more, I think advertisers know this. Over the last decade or so, in fact, advertising has taken a significant turn toward inviting us to find “meaning” and even “identity” as well as happiness in what we can buy. Increasingly, that is, we’re invited – and apparently willing – to find our identity in our stuff.
The following clip from a PBS Frontline documentary on advertising called “The Persuaders” gets at this in a powerful way. The whole 90 minute program is very much worth your while and you can stream it from the Frontline site, but this clip captures the heart of what we’re talking about as it describes the rise and power of “emotional branding,” inviting us to find meaning and identity in our material possessions.
It’s not, let me be clear, that our stuff itself is the problem. Rather, it’s more that we’ve somehow placed too many of our expectations on this stuff, expecting not just a better mechanical experience from our laptop, bath products, or car, but a better, happier, life. And, as Naomi Klein says late in the clip, we’ve come to expect this – even believe this – so strongly, that when we are constantly disappointed that our stuff can’t grant happiness, we just go shopping again. So while we may have lost confidence in the particular object, we still believe the larger (false) story that tangible stuff can provide the intangibles like “joy” or “contentment” we so greatly desire.
So watch the clip when you have a chance, and let me know what you think, certainly about the role “stuff” plays in our lives, but also how our faith and faith communities can navigate these matters with more confidence.
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