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The Medium Chill: How to Have Enough Without Having More

We know more stuff won't make us happy. So what will?

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That’s what consumer culture forever tells us: more money/stuff/status means fewer constraints, more freedom, more choices, thus more happiness. The entire economy runs on spending and debt, and for that to work everyone needs to think they’re not happy but could be happy if they just had more sh*t or a better job or a better house. Every “consumer” needs to be running on the treadmill, working toward the next thing.

But social psychologists tell a different story. They point out that there’s very little evidence that, once a certain base level of material security is achieved, more money and stuff make us happier. Gilbert offers one explanation: having fewer choices is often more conducive to synthetic happiness. Piling up choices can make contentment impossible.

If that’s true, the implications for consumer culture are fairly profound.

Connected chill

Consider: Why do we always remember our childhood friends? Why do so many people look back on college with fondness? Why are so many married couples nostalgic for those hardscrabble early years, with the crappy jobs and tiny apartment and borrowed baby clothes? It’s because, while those environments were materially constrained (we had fewer choices), they yielded powerful relationships. We made the best of what we had, which is an intense psychosocial process that leads to deep bonds and enduring memories.

On this point, social scientists are all but unanimous: social connections are at the heart of wellbeing. We’re happier, and our happiness is more resilient, when we are woven into a social fabric: when we have a devoted life partner, supportive networks of family and friends, and larger communities of which we are a valued part. Even having a pet helps. The good life is a life rich in relationships.

Yet millions of Americans devote themselves to making more money, buying more stuff, accruing more status, dissolving more constraints, and having more choices, even at the expense of social connections. It’s not making us happier, so why do we do it to ourselves?

The rat race vs. chill

The answer lies in what’s called  social proof: we look to our peers, our tribe, for cues on how we ought to behave. Status and wealth are comparative; we judge ourselves not by how we’re doing but how we’re doing compared to the Joneses. If our peers are buying big houses and second cars and private schools, our strong instinct is to want to signal our status by doing the same.

And in America, no matter how much you’ve got, someone next to you has more. This is what  Chris Hayes once described to me as “fractal inequality.” America’s top 10 percent are far, far better off than the other 90 percent, but the top 1 percent is far, far better off than the 10 percent, and the 0.01 percent is far, far better off than the 1 percent.  And so on. The U.S. is slowly dividing into two nations, one that can’t get what it needs and one that has everything and always wants more.

That’s how you get people in the U.S. making $200,000 a year — unquestionably rich relative to the median —  whining that they’re just humble middle class. They look with bitter envy on those making a million, just as those making a million aspire to the tens of millions, and so on. That’s how you get a media and political class at once  privileged and put-upon, swimming in wealth relative to the average American but forever rubbing shoulders with those who are even richer.

There is no plateau, no place to stand where you’re not looking up at your next-door neighbors. And thanks to the magic of television, every family in the country gets to compare themselves to the richest of the rich every single night.

 
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