As humans, we have a constant desire to improve our lots in life (well most of us do anyways). Improvement makes us happy, or perhaps it’s lack of improvement that makes us unhappy. Either way, it’s a good survival adaptation. It stands to reason that the humans with a stronger instinct to improve themselves and their surroundings would become those with better housing during a blizzard or more food during a period of drought. I think it likely that this sense has been bred into us by natural selection.
It manifests itself in strange places though. Now that many of us in the first world no longer have to worry about food or shelter, our focus turns to things like houses, cars, and gadgets. Yet do these things really make our lives better? Arguably they do on the surface. Acquiring them seems to make us happy. When I bought a nice LCD tv a few years ago, I was very excited to have it arrive. But looking at it now, is 37″ really any better than 30″? Is 1080p really better than standard definition in regards to my happiness? I don’t know. When I’m using the tv, I’m not thinking about the pixels, I’m engrossed in the story or action of what’s being shown to me on the tv. Could just be me, but it seems to me that we’re perhaps fooling ourselves, and missing out on a more lasting happiness by succumbing to an over-simplified model of how material goods provide us with happiness.
One model of human desire which I particularly like is that of French literary critic and philosopher, Rene Girard. Girard introduced the concept of what he called mimetic desire in his book: Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. In his model, there is a third element which exists between a person and their desire for an object. This third element is another human, and Girard claims that our desires stem from our desire to possess what the other person has or wants. Admittedly, there are certain animalistic desires such as that of hunger, sexual drive, or sleep which are not necessarily affected by this third actor, but even these are often influenced. This triangular desire plays itself out in much of our day-to-day lives, look at modern advertising trying to convince us that we’d be happier if we behaved like these other people or had what they had. Clearly it’s an effective technique for convincing us that we should go out and buy stuff.
If this all comes back to instinct and we’re powerless to control it, what could we possibly do with this knowledge to make ourselves happier? I hope that merely being cognizant of how our mental functions react helps to make better decisions. Maybe next time you’re going to buy something, ask yourself why you’re buying it. Have you seen someone else with it, do you think it will help you achieve some sort of goal, will it provide some sort of unmeasurable happiness in your day-to-day life? It doesn’t really matter what the reason is, just by taking a moment to be present and aware of why you think it’s going to benefit you to acquire the object may provide you with some insight into what’s really making you happy about it. If you can understand it, maybe you can use it to your benefit.
(Now to destroy all that build-up with a final paragraph of things that just occurred to me as I’m writing this. Also, I’d like to mention that I’m not against being materialistic, just a bit skeptical about the degree of importance with which most of us provide our possessions.)
Of course, maybe sometimes you just need to blow some money of frivolous shit because you want to. It turns out that research shows that typically the more we think about a purchase the less happy we are with it. Maybe it’s all for naught and we’re damned if we do and if we don’t. Maybe I’ll just stick with food, sex, and sleeping. Those are a lot simpler to understand (well two of them anyways).