Wealth does not equate to happiness. Look around at everything at everything you have. Your grandparents, or maybe great grandparents if you’re a lot younger than me, had far less than you. There were no telephones or television in my mother’s childhood. My Gran talked about the arrival of hot running water. Outside toilets, single glazing, no central heating, no fitted carpets, most of them did not have cars, foreign holidays were rare or non-existent. We have so much more material wealth than they did. If it is owning stuff that makes people happy, we should be living in bliss. And yet, we aren’t, and depression and anxiety are widespread.
People with very little can be surprisingly happy. History was not a uniformly miserable place, for all that life expectancies were shorter, diseases often uncurable, and not a one of them had a games consol. On the whole I think our ancestors were better at enjoying what they had and making the most of things, than we are.
My grandmother was born in 1920, and lived through the second world war. She saw poverty, and shortage, rationing, and difficulty. She never had much money and there were many things that were hard for her – poor health especially. But she took joy in music and natural beauties, in the colour of a sky, in friendship. Her life was not devoid of happiness.
We are constantly being sold the idea that what we’ve got isn’t good enough. From our bodies to our diets, our cars, kitchens, decorations, homes, gardens and holidays – we are told to want more, bigger, faster. All the time. We are exposed to a constant stream of messages that tell us to be dissatisfied with what we’ve got. And so we end up working long hours to pay for things we have little time to enjoy. I recall a friend some years ago in a job that wrecked his social life and destroyed his sleep and health, telling me he could not afford to stop. He had to pay for the car, and the sofa and some other things, he was in a ‘wealth trap’ as he called it, and there was no way out. This is the reality we build for ourselves.
When I’ve blogged before about wealth and happiness, I’ve had people tell me that no, really, for them the money and what they can buy is joy. It is the point of life. I’ve been told I am only happy with an open horizon because I make the best of being poor, if I had the money to spend on better things, I’d never look back. One chap who was especially vocal on this, was working 50 hour weeks and more to pay for the things he wanted. He never struck me as being terribly happy, for all that he claimed otherwise.
There is no peace in the constant need to have a new better faster shiny thing. There is no peace in the fear that your stuff is out of date and that people will judge you over it. You do not rest easily at night if the pressure to own and work leaves you no time to wind down. Get that wrong, and the bills, and the debts will leave you anxious if not worse. We pay a high price for our luxuries. We pay in time and life, in happiness, and we pay over and over in terms of the quality of life we live. Yes, a big screen TV may seem like a wondrous luxury, but if all you can do is stagger to the sofa and collapse there in a weary heap between working and sleeping, maybe that’s not such a great deal.
We have more wealth than our ancestors could have dreamed of. What do we do with this? We watch other people pretending to live.
The more I give away, the lighter I feel. Paring my possessions down to that which is needed, useful and life improving, is liberating. I don’t want much. I’m happy with what I have. I feel no lack, and little desire for the things that occupy other people’s time and money. I make ends meet, I get enough of a life, my health is decent. I spend time with my child, and my partner. I have a kind of wealth that would make sense to my ancestors, and I’m not sure how many modern westerners can actually say that.