People tend to enjoy acquiring beautiful things by throwing money at them. Be it a sleek car, latest Apple products, apparels or fashion clothing from expensive brands or even a beautiful “soul mate”. These purchases, once complete, are supposed to make them feel better. Dopamine relsease and all. But do these materialistic transactions really help them in increasing their happiness? Lets ponder on this interesting but now banal topic.
There are two obvious reasons as to why people like to spend on aesthetically pleasing objects. One is that when a person is earning well, there isn’t any alternative method which is as simple and straightforward as showing off your expensive possessions. The usual thinking goes along the lines of “People need to know that I am successful or doing okay with my life. But running around with a stamp of my paycheck on my forehead will definitely be a dick move. So let’s buy some good stuff that signals my money powers”! This strategy works very well as our brains unconsciously associate these beautiful objects with celebrities on TV and movies. That’s what marketing does to us. So if a stranger seems to carry something artsy or shiny, it should imply that the person is somewhat powerful. And it definitely works. We do respond somewhat differently to the person possessing a highly valued object (again, when I say “object”, I am including a good looking or super powerful mate). This is most unfortunate in cases where people use false signals of being successful by saving enough to eventually buy a luxurious item, even if it comes at the cost of making a huge dent on their savings account. They overestimate the social benefit and end up being worse off.
Another reason that is applicable to some percentage of population, is that adding a high quality expensive object to your lifestyle definitely makes them feel better if it operates as well as marketed. The convenience and efficiency of using a product that always works without fail can induce a content that sort of never surfaces but exists in our subconscious mind. The only way to notice its presence is to use a terribly functioning product for a while and then switch to a superior one. In many cases though, the primary reason for its higher price is not that it works well but aesthetically, it looks much nicer than its cheaper alternatives (think Apple products). And this appreciation of beauty can be “objective” and not always a fallacy like argumentum ad populum. On the other hand, the beauty of the product itself can bias us to think that it actually works better than alternatives (again, think Apple products). On the whole, the gratification experienced after using a well designed product can train our brains to seek for them whenever we feel boredom, frustration or even melancholy, hence creating a positive feedback loop.
So why isn’t happiness solvable by applying the seemingly simple strategy of seeking and acquiring beautiful things? Problem is, we get used to it. We quickly become accustomed to using those things and the object starts loosing it’s original appeal. This adaptation eventually brings the trivial irritations of our lives back to the surface without any quick “fix” to fallback on to. Even if you notice your pretty car turning a few heads, the positive feelings associated with this observation fade away gradually by other more persistent worries. People you regularly interact with, won’t be awed every time they look at your stuff. They get used to it too. Attention gradually comes back to your personality traits like intelligence, work ethic, temperament and your overall demeanor. You can throw as much money as you want but the problems with these enduring qualities of mind don’t just disappear. Improving moldable personal qualities requires lot of hard work. Moreover, this work doesn’t usually overlap with most of humanity’s rather boring jobs and hence these qualities remain immutable for most people as they never get to properly work on them. So they are back to buying more shiny stuff.
A popular suggestion in the past couple of years has been to spend money on experiences rather than materials. Learn a new skill, take a relaxing vacation or just hang out with good friends more often (if you have them). The idea is that these experiences will stick with you much longer, increasing your average happiness and content overtime. It’s easier and more enjoyable to remember a happy eventful vacation than the first time you bought an Apple product (this may not be always true for a real Apple fanatic who feels high anticipation towards buying the next iPhone, hence making the act of buying itself a huge experience in the history of his life!). There are exceptions but usually good memories become more enjoyable precisely because we aren’t experiencing them most of our living moments. Shiny objects, once bought, spend too much time with you. This happens quite often in marriages when a person’s interest in their beautiful partner decreases overtime (after seeing or talking to them everyday for many years). Rare (exciting or not) positive experiences tend to take you away from the humdrum of life and hence the memories associated with them are positive.
But one can argue that this way of looking at things has a logical flaw. Many materialistic goods end up providing us great experiences. As I noted above, the increased quality of the product can enhance the future experiences one might have using it. Taking a road trip across the country side might be a great experience in itself but it can be made greater if you possess an open roof, high speed vehicle like BMW or Mercedes than a cheaper one like Honda. Same is true with expensive phones which can significantly enhance the quality of the time spent doing work or for leisure compared to an inexpensive one that keeps crashing. These experiences might not stand out in our memories but on daily basis they do happen to bring comfort or avoidance of frustration.
And this brings us to the question of what exactly is happiness? Are there different kinds of it? If yes, which of these kinds do people usually want to extract out of their lives? Is it the kind that involves experiencing pleasure on moment to moment basis or is it the one brought upon by remembering our past lives, which we use to judge the quality of our lives as a whole? Maybe there is a right mixture of both that people are usually striving for? These questions make this topic fascinating but also quite hard to answer, especially when you consider the immense variability in humans. Its unreasonable to hope that the advice that works for one person would work for everyone else without understanding the exact need for the person seeking advice on achieving happiness. In fancier words, we need to beware of other-optimizing. In this article, I am not going to explore various forms of happiness that can manifest in different brains.
It has been argued over centuries by Buddhism and recently shown by couple of popular (but not statistically good) research papers that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. This has further been tested with fMRI scans of people practicing meditation, an activity where the whole point of the exercise is to stop this unfocused and bothersome wandering of the mind. From the article:
experienced meditators showed deactivation of the part of the brain known as the default mode network (DMN), a region involved in self-referential processing, including daydreaming. All three forms of meditation showed similar results. This discovery is interesting because one of the goals of meditation is to remain focused, and deactivation of the DMN seems to show that meditation is functionally doing just that in the brain. As meditators self-reported significantly less mind-wandering, these results support the hypothesis that deactivation of the DMN is related to a reduction in mind-wandering.
Buddhist monasteries are known for creating people who appreciate simpler things in life and these folks lower their threshold for acquiring content. In other words, they become more sensitive to feeling happiness. So another skill people can use to feel happy is to become good at mindfulness but as I have noticed previously this practice is not only hard to do on your own but also requires care if being taught by a trainer or meditation centers.
We exhaust so much of our short time on this planet in making decisions towards the perfect thing to buy. Once we possess it and begin using it, within few weeks it becomes like any other thing we previously owned. But most happiness pills are invisible and almost impossible to trade in a transactional way. Understanding this, how can we expect our “immediate gratification seeking” minds to bring us any form of happiness? Or have we completely lost hope on achieving long term content and have shifted our focus on never ending ephemeral positive feelings instead? Just like every other animal.