|Shubenacadie Wildlife Park|
In the 1930s, an economist named John Maynard Keynes predicted that in a few decades, we would live in a leisure society and would only have to work a few hours a week, the rest of our time being dedicated to the pursuit of hobbies. Those few hours a week would suffice to provide for a comfortable life, he said.
I do not need to tell you that this hasn't happened. Not only do we still have to work what certainly feels like long hours, we also never seem to have enough time... and most people would not hesitate to add that to simply get by, one income is not enough anymore.
What's more, to afford the goods and services we are constantly bombarded with by the media (e.g. the $200+ a piece clothes, accessories and what not depicted in most women's magazines), and to own the house and cars and have the lifestyle that we see depicted in most Hollywood movies, you need to belong to the upper middle class at least, ideally a dual-income upper middle class family (e.g. a dentist and a lawyer). (For more on what constitutes upper middle class, click here.)
Problem is, the upper middle class encompasses a small portion of the population. What's more, as much envy as it can arouse, the upper middle class still does not have it all. Everyone (except the filthy rich maybe) has to make choices and sacrifices. Everyone looks at what's above and feels a certain degree of envy. Meanwhile, everyone is also aware that so many people have much less.
Having access to running water, electricity, enough food for the whole family and all the other things we take for granted is still a privilege considering the astonishing numbers of our fellow human beings who live in poverty, some of them in our own developed country.
We feel envy because we don't have quite enough, and we experience guilt because we kind of have too much at the same time. How does one reconcile the two?
Over the past 15 years I have gone from living in a studio apartment that was about the size of my current living room, to a 2 bedroom apartment, to a 3 bedroom apartment, and finally to a house that is probably at least equivalent to those 3 apartments put together, in total square feet. I asked my 10 year-old, "is our house too big or too small?" (in my opinion it could go either way, depending on how you look at things). She said "it's big". But then added "well, I think it's perfect". In all honesty, it is too big when you focus on how much space we really need.
Other than our living quarters, the furniture has improved both in quality and quantity, and so have most of our possessions and general lifestyle.
Normal trajectory of 2 students who have become 2 professionals.
Despite being happy with what we have, however, we are also very aware, thanks to the ones who have more, that we don't have everything. By the same token, we cannot ignore the ones who have less. We try not to look too much at the former, and we try to help the latter as much as we can. But what strikes me when I think about my life is that there is no specific period of more intense happiness. It seems that being content with one's life has very little to do with how much you can afford. Also, despite the significant improvement in their material life, and despite belonging to the upper socioeconomic stratums, most people do not feel rich. They still have to budget (albeit differently, I concede). They still cannot afford everything they want.
One phenomenon that could explain all this at least partly, but that Keynes had underestimated, is the relative nature of wealth, and of what we call needs. The reason why we fail to become happier as we get richer, and the reason why we don't ever think we have enough, is that we get used to to any improvement in our material situation, by a process called habituation. We feel we need more. Especially when we compare ourselves to those who do have more - and there will always be such a thing. You have a luxury car? You dream of a yacht. You have a yacht? You dream of a private jet. You have a private jet? You dream of a space shuttle. It never stops! And it's frustrating, because we feel, for all the hard work we put in life, that we deserve all those things.
|Theoretically, we all deserve to live in such a palace.|
This is because our needs are yesterday's wants. Our wants are tomorrow's bare essentials. We definitely do not need what we think we need in order to be comfortable and happy. Yet we are convinced that we do, because we've gotten used to it, and because everybody else has it.
What is essential, materially, in life? Really essential? When I think of that I realize it's almost indecent the amount of stuff we have.
If it was just me I might ditch everything: sell some, donate some, recycle some... and go live in a small trailer with the bare minimum. Or some monastery in the Himalaya. Or some ashram in India. I never thought that the result of acquiring more would be that I now long to have less. I'm not sure what draws me to that kind of lifestyle. At the same time I do still dream of (and appreciate, when I have access to it) luxury. Big dilemma. I will figure it out eventually.
For now I will keep hesitating between the ideals of bourgeoisie and bohemia.
Bourgeoisie because status and money are important in our world. I will never demonize them. To take money as an example, it opens the door to freedom and comfort, and it allows one to surround oneself with beautiful things. There is nothing wrong with that. But push it too far, and it comes to a cost.
Focusing mostly on status and money is a passport for dissatisfaction. Not only because it fails to ever content us, but also because, as Charles Bukowski would say, we run the risk of becoming the "men who stand in front of windows thirty feet wide and see nothing".
Even within the realm of materialistic happiness, it usually pays to - artificially - instill some longing and appreciation. Sometimes it is worth it to wait a little bit longer before acquiring something, even if you already have the money, just so you will appreciate it more.
Not to forget that getting rid of stuff can often provide a high just as good as acquiring stuff.
Turning to bohemia, for those who are willing, might mean more time for contemplation and for artistic pursuits (appreciation and/or creation). It might also mean the luxury of not feeling controlled by the material sphere. That does have its appeal. I know my business(es) could be even more dynamic and lucrative... if only I was willing to work even harder. But the appeal of nature observation, music listening and leisurely reading is still very strong. I try to keep balance between that and hard work.
No matter what your level of status and wealth is, I guess the best option is to keep all things balanced... no matter what the media and your surroundings throw at you.
What do you think?
Edit: based on the first comment I got below, I went and looked up the book Wanderer, by Sterling Hayden. Here is an excerpt: "What does a man need - really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in - and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That's all - in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade."
Food for thought!