We are a country obsessed with consumption, which would be fine if we seemed to be fulfilled getting bigger TVs but having less time to watch them. But, in the aggregate, that’s not the case. . .
So why the ceaseless search for stuff? In a word, competition. It’s worth it to stay ahead in the rat race. . . Winning the competition is more important than having a yard, it turns out. Which is why economists call these “positional goods” — goods whose worth is deeply tied into their position vis-a-vis your direct “competitors” (which is to say neighbors, friends, etc.).
On the other hand, not all goods are positional. Some make us happy simply because they make us happy. Another question asked whether respondents would prefer a world in which they had two weeks of vacation and everyone else got one, or a world in which they had four weeks of vacation and everyone else got eight. Here, positional concerns did not interject, and the majority chose the larger number of days off. The amount of time your neighbor spends with his family does not diminish the amount of time you spend with yours.
The problem is, positional goods tend to appear to be the most pressing purchases. . . And because money is finite, these purchases “crowd out” what you could spend on more enduring generators of happiness — forcing you, for instance, to work more hours to support a larger mortgage than you needed, thus losing the time you could otherwise spend enjoying family and friends, and leaving you less happy.
But there’s an easy solution. Stop. Pull out of the competition. Seriously ask whether you want to continue trading away your time for your stuff. And that requires ignoring what your neighbors have. It requires shutting your eyes against short-term incentives and trying to remember what actually makes you happy.
Tim Ferriss wrote about a group that is doing just that – and they have been doing it for two years.
The group called themselves The Compact, after the Mayflower Compact, and pledged that for the entire year, they would purchase secondhand or borrow everything they needed, except for food and essentials like toiletries and medicine. . .
Sounds hard? They say it wasn’t. They shopped less overall and got creative when they needed specific items. They reserved “shopping” for times when there was something they really couldn’t do without. When Perry needed a pressure cooker to prepare vegetarian dishes for his partner and their two children, he found a used one on the Internet. Pelmas and her husband, who are renovating their home, found secondhand appliances and recycled wood for baseboards and cabinets. But they were stumped by how to find used nails, screws, and hinges, and broke down and bought them new instead — the only time they cheated. Pelmas also struggled with finding sports sunglasses for rowing. Never able to find a used pair, she taped up her old ones and kept using them instead. . .
About 8,000 people have joined the e-mail list The Compact created to discuss the project, and groups modeled after The Compact have sprouted in 38 communities across the United States and in countries including Romania, New Zealand, and Japan. You can read more about The Compact on its blog at sfcompact.blogspot.com.
We have not gone so extreme as The Compact, but we have learned that we are happier as we have consciously tried to avoid falling into the trap of wanting everything we are supposed to want. I don’t need a second car and I don’t need a new computer every couple of years. Instead we try to make decisions about what will bring us happiness without reference to what anyone else has or wants.