First up, a sincere and slightly embarrassed apology to anyone who rushed to grab a copy of How Much is Enough? and has zipped right through it already. The underwhelming truth is that I simply haven’t had the head space for such a heavy read of late – and let’s not beat around the bush, it’s a heavy read, words by an economist and a philosopher.
But I’m kinda back onto it now, after a couple of weeks mulling over one of the more fundamental problems that fuels why such a book needs to be written in the first place – why do we keep wanting more and more? What’s at the core of our insatiability?
It’s matter of fact that most – not all, but most – of us are locked into a rhythm of living to work, working to earn and earning to consume. Which wouldn’t be so bad if we consumed for the improvement of ourselves, within our economic means and within the limitations of our natural environment. Of course, this is exactly the opposite of what happens, at least in the developed Western world.
We’re never satisfied with what we have, even if what we have - on a practical level - is more than enough to meet our fundamental needs of food, shelter, safety, love, friendship.
What’s the deal with that? Why do we buy a third pair of brightly coloured ballet flats, or upgrade our smart phone even though our current model is suiting us just fine?
There are a plethora of reasons, including scarcity of goods, status spending and so on. Hungarian-born economist Tibor Scitovsky stated that getting everything we needed for a safe life didn’t land us in a state of tranquillity but rather a state of dissatisfaction According to Scitovsky, we become bored with what we have, and the only way we can relieve the itch is by experiencing more and more.
This assumes that insatiability is in our nature, which begs the question... is there some evolutionary logic to our eternal dissatisfaction? The answer, of course, is yes. If we were always completely satisfied with what we had, we’d have never picked up that stone and chipped away flakes from one side to create a chopper.
Maslow, in his hierarchy of needs, recognises that we all want positive outcomes – belongingness, love, beauty, security, intelligence. Who doesn't want more happiness, and more love? At the top of the ladder is our utopian state – self actualisation and transcendence. The struggle to achieve these is what the human experience is all about.
So if you concede that insatiability is in our nature, then you might also concede that a system designed to prosper only under conditions of increasing consumption (economic growth) would benefit from piggy backing onto this little foible. This is exactly what a capitalist system does. It hijacks our desire for a better life, for more time, or more happiness, and channels it into the purchase of goods and services. A recent Coke ad told me if I open a bottle of cola I’ll “open happiness”. We’re told that if we want to sleep better, we best buy the latest in sleeping tablets. If we want to seriously enjoy our summer road trips, we better buy the latest SUV complete with iPad docking station and flat screen telly. If we want to bond with our children and get fit at the same time, we better buy the latest Wii game. If we want to be smarter, learn how to paint, teach our kids a new language, become better photographers and connect more with friends, we best buy the latest iPad.
It’s a system that tells us we can achieve all the positive emotional and psychosocial outcomes we want by purchasing material goods.
In time, we discover (much to our surprise!) that said goods don’t actually make us thinner, or better looking, or encourage our kids to love us more. We become dissatisfied with what we have. And because, all along, the system doesn’t bloody shut up about how a bottle of Coke will help us – no, guarantee we – have even more fun! times!, we go against our better judgement and buy a bigger flat screen. Because we want to grow, we want to get to the top of that hierarchy.
It’s all very simple. And to be honest I’m not sure why it took me so long to get my head around it. After all, I’ve spent countless hours in marketing lectures being taught how to manipulate Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to get people to buy shit they don’t really need (I have a Master's in marketing as well as a science degree, but that's another story). I guess what’s really got my knickers in a knot is that if it’s so simple, why is it so bloody hard to cut the cord?
Of course recognising that this is what is happening is the very first step towards breaking free.
Buddhism tries to quash this basic human idiosyncrasy by attempting to enforce a life of detachment from all material goods. Me, I cut back my working hours to 3 days, giving me less dosh to play with in the first place. I’m also meditating more and more, which is helping me find a state of calm and contentment I didn’t think possible in this frenetic, distracted world.
For the next two weeks, I’m also going to try this mini experiment in the power of marketing – I’m not going to watch any TV. Zilch (expect for the Two Greedy Italians on SBS on Thursday nights, love those chubby buggers). Two weeks of freedom from marketing mumbo jumbo. Two weeks of silence, long walks, good books, soul-enriching music, nights spent writing. Given it’s Buy Nothing New month, it’s the perfect time to do this. Wanna join me? Just to see if it makes a difference to how you feel? Just to see what you can achieve when you don’t have messages of material fulfilment infiltrating your mind?
You can find #1 of the How Much is Enough bookclub series here, if you missed it.