Finding Happiness In the Immaterial

When I was younger, say 12 years of age I would write up large lists of things I wanted that I had seen on TV. When I say large, I mean pages and pages of my material desires. Of course in retrospect one can facetiously say “oh, his young mind was obviously influenced by a manipulative media.” While that is in no doubt true, it took many many years for me to get over the implied idea that material possessions would make me happier in some way. It is part of the driving force of consumerism, and so is the quest for status that such objects can seemingly magically bestow. A person is always concerned with his own perceived self-worth and how they measure up against others.

What I find funny is that many get jealous when we see others succeed, as if for some reason we believe life is a zero-sum game where more for them means less for us. Stephen Covey said in his classic The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People that essentially we moved away from the definition of success being character specific, i.e. internal attributes, to a definition that is more visible. A large number of people want to at least appear successful, so they wear their Armani suit, drive the Mercedes Benz or something equally as visible as if to exert and scream out to the world, “I’m a success!” Why does it matter so much what other people think of you?

I grew up relatively modestly, I remember still the days when all there was to eat was frozen soup in a bag that we picked up from the local food-bank, and not of the delicious variety. I remember when we got our first car with air-conditioning and power-windows, to me as a young teenager it seemed a sort of magic. You would think that after this kind of upbringing you would appreciate the value of money, yet I ended up spending pretty frivolously once I started making my own. I bought a lot of CDs, most kids I knew had lots of their own to listen to and I felt growing up like I was the only kid in existence who didn’t listen to music. After awhile I slowly accumulated a nice collection. I learned the hard way that material possessions and the happiness they bestow was ephemeral in nature, it was like pouring sand into a vase with holes in it. You cannot expect to fill the emptiness inside with those sands.

Most of my life up to this point I have been financially poorer than others. One friend told me that if I ever got a decent job that my life-style would expand to accommodate. However I am distrustful of this hypothesis, there isn’t much that I really need besides a roof over my head, food, clothing and psychological needs such as a sense of a higher purpose. As a consequence any material expansion in my life would be driven with purpose and meaning, rather than keeping up appearances or competing with the Joneses. I would like to travel and be exposed to new experiences, and hopefully expand my view of the world and the sense of what is possible. These things are immaterial in nature, yet I believe they are more salient pursuits a person with means could attend to. If I ever started making “decent” money I honestly don’t know where my life would go or what I would in fact pursue.

The only thing I know for certain is that my capacity to take care of myself (and others) would increase, I know I would be eating better and that I would probably get into better physical shape. I would donate more to charity and I would hang out with friends more. I would attend concerts and other events that are not free. All these things are most likely, but I also know that I have been conditioned to live simply and frugally, and to stop caring what others think. I am not sure where the impetus lies for this conditioning, be it in my childhood, my fling with materialism and on the converse, Buddhism or perhaps the media I’ve seen such as the largely anti-consumerist Fight Club, Ad-Busters magazine or the short documentary The Story of Stuff. Perhaps it is the confluence of these factors, all of them working in a synergistic fashion to shape my outlook on things.

While most of my life I have lived in relative simplicity out of necessity, as an adult I don’t see that changing much regardless of a change in financial circumstances. While before it was forced, now it may just be by voluntary volition. Perhaps I am just a creature of habit, or perhaps I am enlightened, who is to tell? One of the core things I remember from my political-philosophy courses during my undergrad studies was the dichotomy of seeming vs being in the work of Plato’s Republic. It generally was about being a good person vs seeming to be a good person, and which was the most prudent and useful. For it is always possible that a saintly man may be regarded as devilish by reputation and live a terrible life because of it. I think the parables of Plato still hold relevance today, much more so in our society which is so focused on spectacle and gossip.

I think in the end it is important to be a good person, to strengthen your character, to develop such aspects as your patience, compassion and other virtues such as magnanimity. Ultimately this will affect your interaction with others and will exert its own type of influence that is more long-lasting than having a bigger house or shinier car than your neighbor.