The Attractive Lie of Having Just a Little More

Name the one thing that, if you could get it tomorrow, would make you totally happy.

If you’re at all like me, you probably had no trouble thinking of something. Or, actually, if you had a problem, it was limiting yourself to just one thing.

And therein lies the key, actually, to our unhappiness. Somewhere along the line, we bought into the idea that if we could only get a little more we’d be happy. A little more money, a little more vacation time, a little better car or house, a little better job, a fancy new gadget… any of these things – depending on who you are – will make you happy.

But it’s a lie. A lie constructed by our consumerist, advertising-driven culture who see you not as an interesting and worthwhile human being but primarily as a consumer, someone with disposable income others would like. As Seth Godin, the marketing guru who advocates for telling true stories to people, clarifies, the problem with such a system is that the promise of obtaining happiness by having “a little more” actually depends on you being unhappy in order for it to work! As he writes on his blog,

The industrial system (and the marketing regime) adore the mindset of ‘a little bit more, please’, because it furthers their power. A slightly higher paycheck, a slightly more famous college, an incrementally better car – it’s easy to be seduced by this safe, stepwise progress, and if marketers and bosses can make you feel dissatisfied at every step along the way, even better for them.

All of this, as Godin goes on to explain, puts us “on a treadmill, unhappy today, imagining that the answer lies just over the next hill…” Unfortunately,

All the data shows us that the people on that hill are just as frustrated as the people on your hill. It demonstrates that the people at that college are just as envious as the people at this college. The never ending cycle (no surprise) never ends.

Of course advertisers need an accomplice, as it’s surely not enough simply to tell an attractive lie. They need help. And we provide it. That is, we believe the lie that keeps a system going that depends upon us being forever unhappy and dissatisfied.

Why? Because as Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness, we have remarkably poor memories. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we have remarkably creative memories that are regularly skewing our actual experience in favor of the stories we believe. And right now, by far the most popular story in our culture is that more stuff makes you happy.

All of which means that if we’re going to get off the treadmill, we need to find a way to remind ourselves – and each other – of what really makes us happy. You could do that by keeping a journal of what really has made you happy and what was fleeting or even downright disappointing. You could keep a gratitude journal, as I’ve been trying to do during Easter, to help you focus on what truly enriches life. You could collect some friends with whom you can talk over ideas about life choices with – which means this probably shouldn’t be the group of guys or girls you go shopping with! :). You can find a favorite verse or passage – Psalm 23:1 or Philippians 4:4-7 for instance – that helps to remind you where to look for happiness. You can find others to experiment with “buying less and having more.” One congregation I know, for instance, invited folks not to buy anything new (other than necessities like food, etc.) for 6 months. Those who participated called it transformative but also admitted they’d never have been able to do it alone.

There are all kinds of things we can do. But we’ve got to be intentional about it. Because not only is the treadmill built, but we’ve been walking it for a while and have about 5000 cultural messages thrown at us each and every day telling us that there is no other path to walk. But there is, and we can walk it together.