I don’t know about you, but I believe that people live their lives in pursuit of happiness. Whether or not they consciously realize this doesn’t matter. I believe that whatever choice or action a person does, the underlying reason for that particular action relate to the assumption, that by acting the person will feel a little bit happier afterwards. In a bad situation this could also mean, that people will act based on what they believe will cause the least amount of unhappiness or discomfort.
I think that this pursuit of happiness is very much evident in our buying decisions. Why would you buy e.g. a particular car, a pair of jeans, a hi-fi system or a pet unless you expect your quality of life to take a turn to the positive with that purchase?
You may reason, that you need a car to get to work, but you still need to choose which car you want and here the “happiness factor” comes into play. Same goes for buying clothes; I’ve lost quite a bit of weight during the year, so most of my jeans are too big for me now, but the main reason I got a new pair was that I enjoy looking good. Pure and simple. I can still use the ones that are a bit oversized for me – and obviously I need to wear pants or I’d freeze – but the main factor for choosing this particular pair was the positive feeling I get when I know I look good wearing them. Happiness, again.
But what is happiness, really? I had never paid much attention to this before, but watching the brilliant TED talk Matthieu Ricard on the habits of happiness struck a chord in me. One part of the talk in particular, where he says that people are focusing their attention on the outside, the outer conditions, and concentrate on the things they feel they want or need to obtain in order to be happy. Or when something goes wrong people respond by trying to fix the outside. However, according to him our control of the outside is limited, temporary and often illusory. On the other hand, when focusing on the inside, isn’t it the mind that translates the outer condition into happiness or suffering?
The impact of those words has echoed in my head since I first heard them. I felt enlightened. I felt that I found the map that will guide me to enjoy life more, and to be content with what I have. Simply by realizing, that no matter what the outer conditions are the feelings of happiness or anxiety are all in my head, I gained control over those emotions. If something annoying happens, let’s say I drop a glass and break it, I get a rush of negative feelings, but now I am able to recognize them for what they are and in a way turn them off. I choose not to have those feelings take over me.
Strangely, this worked even when I was stopped on my motorcycle for speeding a few months ago, and lost my driver’s licence as well as one months salary in fines. I chose not to let it get to me and whenever I started thinking “what if I had taken a different road?” or “why did I go so fast, stupid!” I stopped that line of thought immediately. Having those thoughts would not have changed the situation one bit, but they would have made me feel a lot more miserable about it.
So what does this have to do with owning stuff? First of all, when you realize that your mind translates ownership into happiness, you will start to evaluate every single purchase decision from a different point of view. You will also realize, that since happiness is all in your head, buying more stuff is not necessary in order to become happy. Furthermore, whatever you own will lose its appeal over time, sooner or later. This seems to apply also in extreme situations. According to Dan Gilbert, even lottery winners were not able to gain any long-term sustainable happiness although they were able to buy pretty much anything they wanted.
There is also the rarely considered darker side to owning things. This may not apply so much in clothes and other minor possessions, but I certainly felt it when I bought my first motorcycle a bit over a year ago. It was the single biggest purchase I had ever made, and I also needed to take a loan in order to be able to buy it. Now suddenly this vehicle that was meant to give me freedom was starting to take a huge space in my thoughts. I started to worry about crashing it, the increasing gas prices, high insurance costs, regular maintenance costs, where to put it for winter and so on. I did enjoy riding it, hugely, but I never anticipated to have all these other emotions. My dream came with unexpected mental baggage, and when I sold my bike couple months ago I felt relieved to lose that baggage.
In Fight Club, Brad Pitt’s character hits straight to the point when he says that “The things you own end up owning you.” I know that I will be worrying again in a year about where to store my furniture and other things if I’m going to leave Finland for a student exchange. At that time I will probably curse all the unnecessary stuff that I have accumulated. The less you possess the more you have freedom.
“Desire can’t be satisfied by fulfilling. It grows more and more and there is no end of desires. If a person becomes a king of a country he desires other countries. But the one who doesn’t want to possess any thing possesses everything. The desires can be given up by understanding desires.”
-Sri Baba Hari Dass, 1973 (from the book Less Is More)