When you look around our world today it's almost easy to believe that our happiness and fulfillment will arrive in the package with our latest gadget, tossed into the bag along with the purchase receipt or maybe it'll just magically appear when finally we just wear those new shoes.
At least I'd say there is an undeniable attempt out there to make us believe that our happiness somehow correlates with - stuff.
Now, we're not stupid - we all know that that's not true. Everyone knows money doesn't make you happy (or does it?). That you can't eat it (or can you?) and that what matters are life's true values.
Of course we do know that.
And yet, there's part of us that seems to not believe. That seems to hope that - just maybe - we might still feel a bit better after that next 'thing' we get - even just for a short while.
I don't want to go into why we're so bloody unhappy in the first place that we need to start looking for fixes. That's a topic for another day.
What I'm more interested in is a variant take on this quote from the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn:
You'll have to read the book to fully understand what the gorilla thing is about (and I highly recommend you do, not just because it's a wonderful example of reframing!) but let's rephrase:
With stuff gone... will there be hope for man?
Which of course you can read in two ways (that's the point) - is there any hope for us to feel happiness when our stuff goes away (be it by choice or disaster). Or can we only have hope for happiness when (finally) our stuff goes away?
In our culture exists an assumption that our western model of civilization and industrialization has produced well being and happiness and that if we do more of that, we'll get more happiness.
As you may know from statistics, this was true to a degree up until the 1950's. But during this time of 'peak happiness', life was overall still pretty simple. Ever since, our stuff has increased, and our happiness has declined.
So what does this mean? What do we strive for, if not for the latest i-thing? And- is happiness without 'stuff' actually possible?
Which, sadly, is equivalent to the question 'Can we have our world and be happy at the same time'? Because at the rate that our obsession with stuff is consuming the world's resources, polluting our environment, endangering most of the rest of our ecosystem and exploiting our fellow humans, we are paying a high price for that hope for happiness we hold.
Luckily, the answer is an incontestable 'yes'. Of course we can be happy and not ruin our planet as we go. We just need to immunize ourselves against any concept that tries to make us believe anything else. Wean ourselves off it. Overcome and transcend it like any old addiction.
So here's how to start:
1) Eliminate advertising, as much as humanly possible.
The first thing we ever did that freed us, was get rid of our TV. One day it died, and never got replaced. Boom - hours and hours of ad exposures gone in an instant. But you can do even more: from the 'absolutely no junk mail' sign on the letterbox, to the powerful ad blocker on your browser.
In today's world, you may not be able to free yourself from every piece of cleverly positioned infomercial - but you can take reasonable steps that go a long way. Understand that advertising is a powerful trigger to your addiction - and at the same time, you're not yet directly giving anything up (after all, who likes watching ads anyway?). So it's a great first step.
I realized the effect it has on me quite strongly when we moved into a new house and - after years of successfully eliminating junk mail, newspaper inserts etc - I was reached by a mail order catalog addressed to the previous owner. I picked it out of the letterbox and started flicking through the pages on the way to the breakfast table. Before I knew it I was browsing through the whole thing and by page 25 I found myself thinking that that dress would actually be quite nice for the winter. By page 30 I was reading the ordering instructions for an item I didn't need, didn't even really want and certainly shouldn't afford at the time.
It is that bad.
2) Don't get rid of your stuff - or do.
There's a new minimalist movement going on which has become quite popular - people posing on YouTube with the 20 items they own (and nothing else), declaring how their lives got simpler, better and happier. (Usually these items include an mac book and an iPhone).
And that may be so and work for some. And if it works for you - by all means: get rid of your stuff! But do me one favour: don't chuck it out. Sell it. Share it. Give it away. Don't just order the skip bin on a weekend and dispose of everything that weighs you down - because that's not helping.
But maybe, if you're like me, you like having stuff around. I love my books and my trinkets that have accumulated over the years - they hold fond memories. I also love hosting people and own a vast collection of (non-matching) cups, plates etc.
And I also like having a new thing here and there.
But the thing is - my new things are all old things. I can't remember the last time I bought anything new, actually. In our current waste society, items find me from second hand stores, give aways and often even out of road side skip bins (sitting outside the houses of people who decided to join the minimalist fad). And guess what - they offer the same degree of satisfaction, if you're into that sort of thing. I rejoiced like a child when recently a $60 vacuum cleaner from the thrift shop entered my home. It had suffered a broken carry handle, which clearly didn't meet it's previous owners standards. But it sucks!!! (and it's a Hoover). When you're living in a house with light colored carpet and 2 black pets, you might appreciate my joy.
While of course I realize it doesn't solve the problem, as long as that Hoover was still made in a polluting Chinese factory (which it would have been) - at least you're not supporting the industry with your purchase. And you're keeping an item out of landfill. (And if it breaks and you fix it instead of tossing it, you'll help even more!) So in the interim, it's not a bad strategy.
And if you're thinking it's dodgy going through someone's discarded stuff - how dodgy is it to mindlessly chuck things out in the first place? OMG. Time to strap on your waste warrior gear and save the world, hero!
Stop buying into the buying industry.
3) Get real.
Now, as my third step towards freedom I could say: consider your true values and focus on those, instead of buying stuff... and if you do that thoroughly enough, you'll sure as hell find that 'accumulating stuff' won't be one of them. But here's the thing: We all have all sorts of values, but not always do we act in alignment with them. Particularly not when other drivers get in the way. And our emotional needs are pretty strong drivers.
But on the bright side, there's a much easier fix. Your addiction to things is likely a misguided strategy to obtain something entirely different - and that is the thing to look out for.
Whether buying into the buying game makes you feel connection (keeping up with the Jones's, or connecting with yourself through 'retail therapy'), love (giving gifts to people), diversity (the new shiny object syndrome), certainty (the expensive reliable car) or significance (that same expensive car) - focus on that which you are really trying to achieve - and then choose another strategy. Because, honestly, if your feeling of significance depends on the size of your car, you're clearly not very significant.
So, my task for today: think about what you're feeling when you're browsing those stores. And what the need is you're trying to meet. And then: grab a piece of paper and write your list... your list of things that you know will REALLY give you connection, or make a person significant. Because - you do already know. That's why you admire Nelson Mandela and not Donald Trump.
So go on, get real.