What makes me happy? Certainly it is not the material things in life that make me happy, although there is some comfort that comes from having them. On the whole, my life is pretty much free of a consumerist bent. But there are certain things I want in life that come with a price tag, especially the ability to travel to visit friends and family now that I live an ocean away from them.
It was with interest that I read this recent New York Times article about consumers finding ways to spend less and still find happiness, a topic that has long fascinated me.
Amid weak job and housing markets, consumers are saving more and spending less than they have in decades, and industry professionals expect that trend to continue. … On the bright side, the practices that consumers have adopted in response to the economic crisis ultimately could — as a raft of new research suggests — make them happier. New studies of consumption and happiness show, for instance, that people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it, and when they stop trying to outdo the Joneses
That rings true, especially the part about experiences being more fulfilling than simple objects. There are plenty of things I’ve bought in life that I later realize I don’t use often, I don’t appreciate very much, or that I wouldn’t miss if I didn’t have them. But there are few trips I’ve taken, nice meals I’ve eaten, film festivals I’ve attended, and books I’ve read that haven’t left at least some impression on me, some residual amount of enjoyment that I get to relive each time I think of them. Of course, the Times’ article goes on to note that the possible exception to this finding is that purchases of clothing are more likely to continue to thrill the purchaser each time they are pulled form the closet, a finding with which Tawn might all too eagerly agree!
These questions about happiness, spending, and the relationship between the two arise at this point in my life because in the past two months, Tawn has made a change from full-time work to part-time, seeking a new sense of direction and an opportunity to create some balance in his life, including the time for more yoga practice and spending more time with his parents.
That reduction in our household income has already been felt and likely will be felt more in the months to come as we learn what the full impact is of losing a good chunk of the income we were used to. That reduction in salary was one of the reasons that I traveled solo back to the family reunion in Kansas City last month, in fact.
We’re speaking regularly about this transition and its effects on us, sharing our feelings and concerns and regularly reviewing our financial situation to avoid undue stress caused by unexpected bills. This is a good thing and I’m confident that we’ll be able to survive fine with less income and will hopefully find that the free time is beneficial and brings happiness in ways that money and things cannot.
Still, every so often I worry a bit. Will this mean I can’t do the travel I want to? Will that mean fewer of the experiences that I enjoy? Is that something I’m willing to give up?
In reflection on all these questions, I recall a chapter from the Chinese philosophical treatise, the Tao Te Ching.
Tao Te Ching Chapter 44
Translation by Stephen Mitchell
Fame or integrity: which is more important?
Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
Success or failure: which is more destructive?
If you look to others for fulfillment,
you will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself.
Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.
Let’s see if I can keep focused on this message in the months to come, to remember that there is nothing lacking and the whole world already belongs to me.