It’s all about the stuff.

9 08 2010

I hope you’ve read the NYT article on materialism from yesterday by now. In case you haven’t, here’s a taste:

Thomas DeLeire, an associate professor of public affairs, population, health and economics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, recently published research examining nine major categories of consumption. He discovered that the only category to be positively related to happiness was leisure: vacations, entertainment, sports and equipment like golf clubs and fishing poles.

Using data from a study by the National Institute on Aging, Professor DeLeire compared the happiness derived from different levels of spending to the happiness people get from being married. (Studies have shown that marriage increases happiness.)

“A $20,000 increase in spending on leisure was roughly equivalent to the happiness boost one gets from marriage,” he said, adding that spending on leisure activities appeared to make people less lonely and increased their interactions with others.

So doing something will make you happier than owning something? Gosh, I hope so as I’ve been aspiring to own less and do more lately. I’ve also been reading a book that dovetails nicely with this subject, No Impact Man, by Colin Beavan. He’s the guy who tried to live for a year without harming the environment. [They also made a movie about his efforts, which I’d describe as interesting but not exactly enthralling. His wife, who can drink three Starbucks coffees that look like milk shakes in one sitting, cracks me up, though.]

Beavan is a little whiny sometimes, but he is also quite eloquent on precisely this subject:

The trick to environmental living might not be choosing different products. Instead–at least for profligate citizens of the United States and Western Europe–it might be partly about choosing fewer products. It might not just be about using different resources. It might be about using fewer resources.

As the ancient Chinese Tao Te Ching says, “The man who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.”

When Walmart takes that line, I might then be able to take their greenwashing seriously. I won’t hold my breath.

To me as a historian, this all goes back to industrialization. Direct from my PowerPoint, here’s the slide I use to define industrialization (it took me like hours back in my early PowerPoint days to do this, so I’m glad it’s getting extra duty here):

If companies hadn’t been able to sell all the new stuff that industrialization produced, then there wouldn’t have been any advantage to industrializing. Indeed, I tend to teach much of late-nineteenth and twentieth century history as being about stuff (or lack thereof during the depression). Americans have never known exactly how much was enough so they have generally been motivated by getting as much as possible.

With the environment being the way it is lately, it’s nice to see a few people talking about getting off the treadmill.


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