It can be nice to have nice things. It’s such an effortless impulse to want nice things – a desire that keeps passing through the mind like a persistent pilot circling his plane over your house with an advertising banner fluttering behind it saying, “Your neighbour’s car is better than yours.” Before we buy nice things, we let ourselves believe in the benefits – a newer car will make me look successful, a bigger house will elevate my social status, expensive clothes and accessories will make me attractive. We let ourselves believe that the novelty will be permanent.
These consequences of purchases are widely accepted because they’re incessantly told to us as stories in advertising, in movies, and on social media. The stories have to be appealing to make us want more nice things – we unconsciously think that the man in the ad probably wasn’t suave and handsome before he started driving that sleek car, the woman in the movie probably wasn’t invited to parties before she moved into that mansion, that celebrity couple wouldn’t have fallen for each other if they didn’t regularly wear the latest designer outfits.
The basic premise of marketing is to tell you what problem you have, or at least make you worry more about a problem you’re already aware of, and then offer to sell you a solution to that problem. There’s nothing inherently unethical about this process when the problem is real, when the solution is good. But with so many products, so many subscription services, so much advertising, it’s so easy for us to accept that our problems are being solved each time we open our wallets. It’s easy to make us believe that all we have to do to feel good, to invite prestige, is to spend more money because we don’t own enough nice things yet.
When we give in and buy that new thing – the car, the smartphone, the fashionable shirt – we enjoy the novelty, the new and fresh experience. But it wears off. Each item immediately plummets in value when you use it for the first time, and in a year or less an updated version of it is now on the market. And then we pine for the upgrade. If these desires are left unchecked we continue an incessant pursuit of shinier things, like a moth bouncing from a dim light bulb to brighter and brighter ones, gaining little satisfaction on the way.
Speaking of the enjoyment of novelty, a question comes to mind – how do we keep the novelty of new things from wearing off? In my opinion, it’s not the question we should be asking of ourselves here but let’s explore it. Indeed, the responses when the question was asked on the TrueAskReddit subreddit illustrate exactly why we shouldn’t be asking it. Here are a couple of the most insightful:
“Turning to material goods for happiness is your first problem. Find a rewarding hobby, whether it be exercise, writing, building something with your hands, whatever. These are things you can spend your whole life getting better at. Seeing your hard work pay off in the form of becoming skilled in something you once weren’t is much more rewarding than any material goods will ever be. Reject the importance of material possessions and free your mind from what advertising has made you believe you need to make you a happy wholesome person. This will lead you to an inner peace unencumbered by the need for new “things.”Redditor SteakDinner76
“You don’t. Nor do you want too. A major part of human nature is that the excitement of new things wears off and you return to a baseline. That’s a huge part of why humans keep moving forward and trying to improve.
Remember being a kid and getting a new toy and how awesome it was? Imagine if that feeling never went away. If it felt that awesome every single time you touched it. Would you ever develop past that point? Ever develop new skills or try new things? Why would you even want to?
The concept of human “happiness” as presented to us is flawed. We are presented the idea of “happily ever after” and that happiness is a state of being. It’s not. It’s a temporary emotion designed to reward positive experiences. It’s supposed to be that way. If it wasn’t, humans would get that first experience that makes them happy and stop because now they are happy. By returning to that baseline, it creates motivation to improve and advance.”Redditor Hunterofshadows
So if we conclude that material goods will consistently leave us dissatisfied, another question presents itself – how do we curb our desire to buy shiny new things? How do we stop bouncing from light bulb to light bulb?
We should, the Stoics advised, learn to want what we already have. It sounds paradoxical, but it’s a simple exercise that can make us appreciate that we may actually have everything we need. Try it – think of a few of your favourite possessions and consider how you would feel if you lost them or they were stolen. This should give you a renewed appreciation of what you own or perhaps even make you realise that you need to de-clutter.
Another answer to the TrueAskReddit question touched on this exercise:
“Think about how you’ll feel if it were gone. A friend of mine bought a Nintendo Switch and later pawned it because he needed some money. After a few days, he really appreciated the time that he had it and wished to have it back. You never know what you have until it’s gone. Think about the impact it first made on you. That impact may diminish after some time, but if you ever lost your item, you’d see that the impact was always there”Redditor PainfullySynesthetic
Amassing vast collections of expensive items may seem like something to aspire to when you look at the lives of the rich and famous, but consider why they keep buying houses, cars,and jewellery. It goes back to the moth and the bulbs again – the big-money purchases only provide short-term gratification, and soon enough there is something new to catch their attention. The boost each purchase provides is temporary. The rich and famous can get stuck on the hedonic treadmill like any normal person, just on a grander scale.
As the old saying goes, you can’t take it with you. And as Paul Kelly sang in the song of the same name:
You might own a great big factory, oil wells on sacred land
You might be in line for promotion, with a foolproof retirement plan
You might have your money in copper, textiles or imports from Japan
But you can’t take it with you
Don’t forget, there’s so much of the world that can be experienced and appreciated at little or no cost. Spending time strengthening personal relationships, taking aimless, refreshing walks in nature, writing in a journal, listening to the radio, reading your favourite book. Don’t wish to prolong the novelty of the expensive things. Reclaim the novelty of the free things. The best things in life are free.