The Tyranny of Things

Think concerns about materialism and happiness are a relatively modern phenomena? Think again. The Victorian writer Edward Sandford Martin (writing in 1893) had this to say:

“If another man tries to oppress him, he understands that and is ready to fight to death and sacrifice all he has, rather than submit; the tyranny of things is so subtle, so gradual in its approach, and comes so masked with seeming benefits, that it has him hopelessly bound before he suspects his fetters. He says from day to day, “I will add thus to my house”; “I will have one or two more horses”; “I will make a little greenhouse in my garden”; “I will allow myself the luxury of another hired man”; and so he goes on having things and imagining that he is richer for them. Presently he begins to realize that it is the things that own him…”

Going back (a lot further), the Prophet posed the following:

“And tell me, people of OrphaIese, what have you in these houses?

And what is it you guard with fastened doors?

Have you peace, the quiet urge that reveals your power?

Have you remembrances, the glimmering arches that span the summits of the mind?

Have you beauty, that leads the heart from things fashioned of wood and stone to the holy mountain?

Tell me, have you these in your houses?

Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort,

that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest,

and then becomes a host and then a master?”

De-clutter your life…

You may have come across modern quotations of a similar vein, like ‘You don’t own your possessions- your possessions own you’. I think there’s an old Chinese proverb (isn’t there always!?) which I’m going to paraphrase badly as something like “If you’re only going to be happy once you have everything you want, you’re either going to have to work very hard to get it all or need to reduce the number of things you want.”

What is it about the nature of man that compels us to feel this way? I’m not sure- probably a combination of human instinct to want to provide and care for those around them and of the greedy little capitalistic in all of us. Regardless, in my inexpert opinion, the more stuff you have in your life, the less you’re going to be in touch or in control of your life. Work out the difference between what you want and what you need. Declutter your life- throw away anything that has not been worn, used, read or even touched in the last year- you really don’t need it. Work won’t set you free- decluttering will. Have a look here for some eastern orientated inspiration on this.

… and be happy

Anyway, if you aren’t compelled to reflect on it by the ancient and spiritual advice I’ve kindly presented for you, I’m going to appeal to you with cold hard science. Less clutter and things means greater happiness. For quite a while researchers have known that generally, spending money on experiences rather than material possessions leads to greater long term happiness, and people who are ‘experiential’ than ‘materialistic’ people are generally happier. The thrill of a new purchase (it can be a strong chemical rush which is capable of being an addiction) quickly wears off whereas memories live for ever. I will never forget my joy and pride at being given my first smart car by my parents in my early twenties, and also but a few years later my yearning for another more modern, expensive car. What changed- the car? Hardly, exempting a few scratches and more faded paint. Me? I don’t think so, exempting being a few years older and uglier. No matter how happy you think that new watch is going to make you, it won’t last. If you really think you need a new dress for the impending event in your calendar to make sure you feel like a million dollar and enjoy yourself, be prepared for the feeling to fade as you see everyone else looks just like you. Less is more. Reduce and streamline. Get rid of distractions and prioritise.

Lastly, if you still want to be happier but really can’t move your head out of the consumerist lifestyle we live in, or are such a gadget freak you won’t start spending your time and money on experiences rather than things, I have the following advice- move to another geographical area where you will have higher than average income. You’ll still be a materialistic salary slave, but you’re likely to be a happier one. See here for why.

This might be an appropriate to time to mention a proverb apparently popular in Thailand: ‘Don’t think about being happy, just be’. Try and remember that the next time your mouse hand is hovering over the ‘Buy It Now’ button on eBay.


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