Do We Have Enough Stuff?



We live in a ‘disposable’ age. We have more than we need but few items are made to last because the world has been designed to encourage ‘throw-aways.’ Would you be happier if you have fewer things than you have now? Would you be happy to give up the BMW’s, Pradas, Guccis, the latest gadgets and that big house for the simple life? Must we go out of our way to get the new glossy toys to impress the neighbors? The reality is that we live in a world of stuffocation. It’s a new word and it’s easy to define. You look in your wardrobe and it is packed with clothes but you can’t find anything to wear!

You decide to buy something new and while you are it you buy some other stuff that you don’t really need but you tell yourself you must have them. You return home with bags of stuff and throw them in a corner. The simple fact is that we have more stuff than we need and what is alarming is that we want to acquire more. The pursuit of happiness for many is really the accumulation of more stuff.

The comedian George Carlin was on point. He said, ‘the whole meaning of life is trying to find a place to put your stuff!’ Materialism has created so much stuff that an entire storage industry has been set up to look after it. The outlook is not promising. Given the current state of consumerism, the tendency will be for us to continue to accumulate stuff, to buy things that we don’t need, and to put them away with negative emotions. The problem is that when you think you have gotten rid of stuff you find that it has returned, sometimes looking different.

The Center on Everyday Lives states that, ‘we are living in the most materially rich society in global history with light years more possessions per average family than any preceding society.’ The Center also points out that we are at a point of material saturation and that we are suffering from a clutter crisis.

We are constantly bombarded with powerful images. For example, we see people with expensive gold watches, drowned in shopping bags and with the latest designer outfits. They jet to different resorts and spend as if money is falling from the trees and some even burn dollar bills to give the impression of happiness. But behind these manifestations of crass opulence lie depression, loneliness, and unhappiness.

As we look to find some balance in our lives, we can’t help confronting the million-dollar question: why do we have this obsession with stuff and do we have enough of it? Will there come a point in our lives when we will be content with what we have? The answers to these questions are complex as they relate to both psychological and social impulses.

Psychologists argue that people buy things with positive emotions. There is the belief that the purchase of new stuff will lead to happiness. There are those that think a new car, a house, or appliances will make life comfortable, and bring a feeling of security and these in turn will cause one to be happy. When we really want an object a message is sent to the pleasure center of the brain and creates the feeling that we must have it and that the acquisition will help solve our problems.

There is the view that acquisition gives a short boost to ‘materialistic people’ and that positive emotions are temporary. The argument here is that the tendency to want is natural since resources are limited and there is competition in scarce environments. In addition, constant want keeps us in a state of alertness and readiness that is connected to our evolutionary make-up.

A number of studies has shown that the materialist craze or buying stuff does not lead to happiness. Indeed we tend to become unhappy when we place the emphasis on material things. A study from Tufts University concludes, ‘ people who are highly focused on materialistic values have lower personal well-being and psychological health than those who believe that materialistic pursuits are relatively unimportant.’ In another study published in the Journal ‘Motivation and Emotion’ it is shown that when people become more materialistic their sense of purpose decreases.

As with most subjects there are differing opinions. One view says that we should not be too concerned about material acquisition since its all part of the hierarchy of needs and that there will come a time when we will achieve a natural balance. But this does not sit well with environmentalists and philosophers who argue that clutter will lead to affluenza. In other words mass consumption leads to mass depression.

How then can we put all that stuff in a special place and live a clutter-free life? The first and perhaps the most important way is to value experience above objects. When a child performs at a school recital the experience is unforgettable and priceless. It is talked about for a long time and that performance can influence others to do better as well.

If you buy stuff just for the sake of doing so and you throw them out in a few months it can have a tremendous impact on our limited resources. Many people believe that materialism creates unhappiness. If we accept the premise that a mind that wanders is unhappy then around half of humanity is in a state of unhappiness.

It is in this context then that ‘experiences’ make sense over ‘material objects.’ For instance, it is suggested by one writer that, ‘ you can wait for a delicious meal at a nice restaurant or look forward to a nice vacation and this feels more satisfying than waiting for your pre-ordered iPhone to arrive. Or when the two-day shipping on Amazon Prime doesn’t arrive.’ The conclusion here is that positive experiences are uplifting and they make people happier while material possession will either become obsolete or wilt.

A bad experience can become a good story but an experiential purchase is fleeting. People tend to become more generous when they think of good experiences as opposed to when they make purchases for stuff. The economy is planned to encourage aggressive consumption as this is fed by easy access to credit. The banks are known to send credit cards in the mail and offer different incentives to increase spending.

Is it too late to slow consumerism? This is a difficult question for a number of reasons. There is aggressive marketing in the media that makes consumption all too easy. There is a report that in 2020, eighty percent of adults will be carrying a smart phone in their pockets. This may be great news to the manufacturers but the impact of this technology on society is worrying.

If the majority of the world’s population is connected what time would be left for the simple pleasures of life? The argument in many boardrooms is that businesses are driven by profits and quality time is secondary. One should not expect much help from the political establishment either. Politicians are more concerned with fundraising and campaigning than with implementing workable social and economic policies that are aimed at reducing clutter.

There has to be a balance between consumerism, all that stuff in our lives, and a return to old-fashioned values. The idea is to live simple by using less.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.