*Warning: this post is long and not reader-friendly because I am transitioning my writings into a more academic style.
In the previous post, I’ve talked about happiness on a macro-scale – basically what can happiness be for your life as a whole. Alternatively, happiness can also be the short-term emotional reaction that gives us neurological pleasure which we all naturally desire; it is therefore in this post that I will explain how this kind of happiness can be achieved in our everyday lives.
Material wealth as an assumed fundamental source of happiness in our capitalistic world
From an economic point of view, we get happiness from material goods and that is the foundation in which our capitalistic economy functions on – we demand endlessly for goods (unlimited wants) that gives us happiness (from consumption) and businesses supply them to us for profit, allowing them to purchase goods that gives them happiness as well. Essentially, our economy is a cyclic system of generating happiness, or at least that’s the basic assumption of traditional economics.
However, material goods have 2 main problems that make happiness both illusory and counter-productive: hedonic treadmill and social comparison respectively.
Have you ever experience the excitement and joy when you bought a new shirt/dress that you’ve been eyeing on for days or even months? Then after a few times of wearing it, the excitement and joy unknowingly just died off and you became unsatisfied again? And you are off to eyeing another piece of apparel in the shopping mall that you frequent. That’s the essence of hedonic treadmill, we seek for more material wealth and eventually we will get bored of our current state of wealth, leading us into a temporal state of unsatisfaction until we get more wealth. Then the vicious cycle repeats itself. Hedonic treadmill is thus defined as “having to run ever faster and accumulate more and more just to stay in place hedonically.” (Gilovich and Ross, 2015).
Hence, the pursuit of material wealth is an addiction, it not only leaves you unsatisfied repeatedly; it also blinds you to other more important things in the process.
Material goods as a tool
Nonetheless, I am not suggesting that you should abhor material goods. Some material goods make your life a lot easier and they free up time for you to do other stuff that can actually give you sustained happiness. For instance, an automated dish washing machine can save you time from doing dishes, allowing you to spend more time with your family. Thus, you should see material goods as a mean to an end rather than an end in itself; fall into the trap of pursuing it as an end and you will fall into the abyss call hedonic treadmill.
You must have indulged in social comparison before: you feel that what you currently have is not good enough because someone you know has it better than you. Material good is especially prone to this comparison because many people around you have the same set of material good: Almost everyone in a first-world capitalist society has clothes, house, phones and TVs; and this includes other goods as well when you take your income level into account. A high-incomer is more likely to know another high-incomer and as a result, they will start comparing a wider variety of goods such as cars, luxury watches, etc.
So the basic idea is this: the wealthier you are, the more social comparisons you tend to make; the more unsatisfied you will be since “people often engage in social comparison in a way that can diminish pleasure.” (Gilovich and Ross, 2015).
To conclude so far
The pursuit of material wealth is fundamentally unable to give you sustained happiness. Instead, you should approach happiness psychologically; which makes sense since the happiness we are talking about here is a neurological reaction.
The cliché advises from a psychology book (Gilovich and Ross, 2015) that you should nevertheless take to heart:
1) “Act like a happy person, and you will find it easier to be one.” AKA fake it till you make it.
2) “Don’t waste your energy denigrating paths not taken or choices not made” AKA don’t get stuck in the past.
3) “Avoid social comparison that put you at the short end of the stick.” AKA stop comparing.
4) “Savor great times and things you have and the blessings you enjoyed in the past rather than dwelling on what may be lacking in your life today” AKA count your blessings and don’t compare it to your past, live in the moment.
Besides these advices, there is also a way for you to approach material pursuit in a more sustainable manner (since material pursuit is so integrated in our lives and we can’t avoid not purchasing things right?): spend your money on experience over material good. This is because “material and experiential purchases tend to provide just as much happiness initially, but the thrill of material goods tend to fade, while the enjoyment derived from experiential purchases endures”(Gilovich and Ross, 2015).
The reason why the thrill of experiential purchase endures is because “experiential purchases live on and provide more enduring enjoyment in the stories we tell, the memories we cherish, and the enhanced sense of identity and personal development we gain…Pleasure is much less subject to adverse comparisons when it comes to experiences like vacations or concerts than possessions like laptops or TVs. People who wastes time and money (on material goods)…are less likely to indulge in social comparison when it comes to where they vacate or dine out. Experience , in other words, tend to be evaluated more on their own terms. We are less likely to be troubled when we’re outdone by the experiential purchase of others.” (Gilovich and Ross, 2015)
If you didn’t read that precious long chunk that I got from the book, you can at least take this away: save money for vacations, not for lush cars, watches or bags; your happiness will be much more immune to social comparison, thus much more sustainable.
Happiness as a neurological product should not be achieved mainly through material pursuit as it is inherently a death trap, but it should be used as a mean to freeing up more time for yourself to pursue happiness in other ways. Happiness should be mainly achieved through self-induced psychological manipulations and if you do come across a choice; choose experience over material goods; that’s my recipe to happiness everyday.
Gilovich, T. and Ross, L. (2015) The wisest One in the room: How you can benefit from social psychology’s Five most powerful insights. Philadelphia, PA, United States: Free Press.