Have you ever noticed that when you buy expensive Christmas or birthday gifts for people, they are happy for a day or a few minutes, then they are back to the same state of mind? The thing that was to make them happy often languishes in the closet or garage.
Material possessions (things) don’t make people happy, and for those who are materialistic even less so.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” John 10:10 (NASB)
Well, maybe that little black dress in the closet always brings a smile. Or that special power tool that gets used a lot and saves a lot of time and work. Or an experiential thing that leads to adventure after adventure. I really like our new refrigerator. It’s a continuous adventure for me. There are material things that bring us satisfaction because they address a need.
What we can say is that happiness is fleeting when it comes to accumulating objects. Our cat spent three days chasing a popcorn seed around the kitchen and another two days in and out of a box with the other cat. Be like a cat. Um, without the scratching and fur flying.
There is a movement today toward minimalism to get happiness. Minimalism isn’t just about controlling your desire to have more. “Minimalism may also encourage people to focus on psychological needs — such as autonomy, competence, and relatedness — that have been shown to promote psychological growth.”
Vow of poverty
Is minimalism a vow of poverty? For some religious people, a vow of poverty means renouncing worldly possessions and focusing on communal living. In the early church some did this. It seems it didn’t catch on for most people. We like our video games and sports gear. And we don’t like being accused of being communists, which is a label some people put on things that aren’t about making money.
Studies by the World Bank and others have shown that people with small incomes experience the same level of happiness as others, if they simply have enough to support themselves. Poverty, on the other hand, makes all people miserable. Studies have shown that getting more doesn’t increase happiness.
Does making more money so people can buy more make a difference? In management we asked people to write articles on driving safely. What I found was that money was definitely not an inducement to write an article. When people’s needs are met, money and the things it can buy are much less motivating when people’s needs are met.
Important to many people are a couple of things that defy this. For many people it’s important to purchase something for their family or themselves each week as a reward for working and enduring. For many, gifts are their love language. This is probably a cultural or familial heritage in which these symbols become an expression of love.
Christians speak of temptation, and the love of money is considered the root of all evil. The Hebrew Bible speaks often of fairness in trade, denouncing deceptive practices. They are all illusions of things we think will make us happy. Illusions are powerful things in that they relate to our desires and quest for happiness.
Advertising uses illusions. It appeals to our desires. Get a new car and a beautiful woman comes with it. Same thing happens when you use acne medications. One is way less expensive.
Advertisers keep us lusting after things that often don’t matter. Money is their only driving force. Investors push companies to ever higher profits so that the price of stocks always goes up every four months. To do that companies often have to be dishonest.
An example of this is advertising that urges us to use more dish washer detergent, pairing the idea of convenience with supposed water savings, so they can make more money. In my opinion they blatantly lie that you will save water by running the dishwasher every day for just a few dishes, without rinsing, because they claim it takes, four gallons to rinse just a few dishes. Music to everyone’s ears. It actually takes a dishwasher four cycles using three gallons a cycle, totaling up to ten to fourteen gallons a load. Gross waste of ten gallons. But who does math?
The illusion of product benefits keeps us trapped. We buy, buy, buy. “… the average US household owns 300,000 items,” according to a BBC article on minimalism. Interestingly, newer generations are less likely to be caught in this endless trap.
Some commercial real estate interests fight against minimalism by doing things like creating regulations that prevent tiny homes, even though for some people and some couples they are perfectly adequate. Moneyed interests try to keep us enslaved to things that make money for others.
Illusions pushed on us are the thief that Jesus referred to in John 10:10: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy ….”
Controlling our time and attention
The more you have the more you have to spend time and money maintaining, and the more things you have to worry about. Your attention goes to things rather than relationships. I’ve known people who had very expensive cars which spent most of their time at the dealer’s repair shop. The more technical gadgetry you put into a vehicle or anything else, the more things break down and require attention and money. I’ve had cars like that.
I keep emphasizing that few of us live life at the extremes. At the two extremes are those who live in poverty and the hedonists who live for physical pleasure and surround themselves with things. But most of us we have to provide for our families and their futures and dreams – their purpose. We can demonize consumerism and accumulating things but that’s not realistic. It’s a matter of balance. It’s a matter of understanding what’s important and focusing more on those things.
Take Home Points
If we’re expecting things we gain in life to make us happy we’re usually looking in the wrong place. Life will always show us things that excite our desires, manipulating us into spending our money and time chasing after those things, the thief that takes away. Chasing after illusions is a lifetime process of failure that ends with our death.
Jesus talked about having abundant life. What he meant by that wasn’t baskets full of goodies. He meant relationships not weighed down and destroyed by the wrongful things we do or excessive burdens of religion placed on us, and by having purpose in life. Abundant life.
Jesus talked more about the experiential journey than accumulating material things. Be like Jesus. Okay, maybe be like a cat or dog, too.
Next in the series
Satisfaction with our place in life (jobs, family, meaning and purpose, etc.)
Our answer is God. God’s answer is us. Together we make the world better.