Stuff doesn't make you happy; people and experiences do.
Everybody knows this, right? You would think.
You are a man in his fifties, becoming increasingly aware of your own mortality. In the last few years you have lost a father, a brother and a sister-in-law. It is Boxing Day. Christmas Day has been a little fraught on account of the fact that your mother-in-law has been round and you find it hard to spend time with her. But today, for the first time in about four years, you are going to have both children and both children’s partners all in the same room in a relaxed situation. It is snowing outside.
You eldest daughter and son-in-law arrive and tell you that you are going to be a grandfather for the first time. This means of course that this will be the last time that all six of you are together as adults free from the demands of small children for some time. You have a lovely Christmas dinner complete with home-made crackers. You exchange thoughtful presents; you have been given a trumpet. How are you going to choose to spend the afternoon and evening?
(A) Sitting with your family, relaxing, having a laugh with them and enjoying their company, talking about the pregnancy and plans for the year ahead or
(B) Dabbling on your computer in an another room trying to make the GPS system on your phone work, dragging your exhausted-looking son-in-law away from the others in order to assist you.
Poor Dad. I often fear that imagination skipped a generation. However, it does serve to illustrate a point. Not just about manners, because of course what he did was rude, somewhat hurtful and especially unfair on poor little Adrian, but this is about happiness and identifying opportunities for happiness when they arise. When his life flashes in front of him at the last minute, I can’t imagine the joys of his GPS system will feature. Don’t know, do have my suspicions.
Now I am not about to dismiss the value of the GPS system or any of the other stuff that we don’t actually factually need, as most items beyond food, shelter, clothing, medication and means to get to and from our place of work could be called into question. However, I do think we are all susceptible to confusing the value of stuff, especially against the value of people and pleasant experiences.
Stuff is valuable in only one of two ways. One is not really to do with happiness; money and property can offer some degree of financial security, which may relieve some concern about the future. It never makes people happy: there are always plenty of other uncertainties which cannot be appeased with cash. And indeed, almost any investment one makes is a risk and involves uncertainty in itself.
In recent generations, owning your own home has been a tick-box on the criteria for a happy, successful life, causing tremendous strife for those of my peers who, during this boom, cannot get onto the property ladder. However, whilst property is a relatively sound investment, owning your own home is little more than a nice idea; one that my great grandparents didn't consider for a moment. Did it ever make anybody happy? Not exactly.
Stuff can only actually play a role in happiness when it either enables you to connect with other people or enables you to have a pleasurable experience. And the value of a thing should only be in proportion to its absolute necessity or the amount of happiness it creates. My laptop is tremendously valuable to me because it allows me so much freedom to do so much. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to work, blog, keep in touch with many of my friends, read the news, listen to certain radio programmes and so on. I don’t know what I would do with myself. Coincidentally, at five hundred and something pounds, my laptop is one of the most expensive items I possess. However, I could easily have paid two or three times that amount for a laptop computer without doubling or tripling the happiness produced.
I could buy a diamond ring at several times the cost of my laptop and get very little pleasure out of it indeed. Even if someone bought me such a thing – and it therefore played a part of our connection, it really wouldn’t be worth it. It would just be another sparkly thing and that money would be useful elsewhere – elsewhere in our lives or elsewhere in the world. Apart from the fact that the diamond trade is well dodgy.
Yet diamond rings are supposed to bring tremendous amounts of pleasure to any woman. In fact, all amount of useless stuff is supposed to bring pleasure to women for some reason. I know I am not a total oddball, but when I think about the happy experiences, even the most romantic experiences of my life, stuff didn’t feature at all. And if you take the most sentimental woman in the world and ask her to recall romantic experiences, she may mention the odd item of jewellery given, but there will also be the picnics and evening walks and incidents that cost nothing. She is certainly not going to provide a list of gifts received.
Now this has descended into somewhat of an anti-materialist rant and I didn’t mean for that. Only it does strike me that this is the direction that so much of our time and energy goes (materialism, not ranting). And indeed, so much of our culture is built up around the myth that material wealth and stuff - whether is a magic beautifying potion, the latest fashion or a shiny new car – is going to result in our happiness. But it never did, did it? I mean, my laptop is cool, but not for its own sake. Only for your sake and for the sake of my work.
To actually seek out happiness, one must look towards the people around us and experiences to be had from life. Passive experiences of reading or listening to music, or active experiences of swimming or painting or something like this. And spending time or otherwise connecting with other people. Preferably nice people. Some people suck.