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Lust for Stuff 

Or, why those material goods you've been craving will bore you two weeks later

It can't buy you love. Then again, love doesn't pay the bills. It's not everything, but when you're scrounging change to put enough gas in your expiring car, it sure makes a difference. It won't guarantee contentment. It can create conditions in which that condition is more easily cultivated.

How does money connect to happiness?

Back to that falling-apart car with the empty gas tank and your need to get somewhere. Five dollars would probably get enough gas for a trip to town, a couple errands done. A thousand and you could take the car in to the mechanic, buy some peace of mind. Fifteen thousand and hey, you could get yourself a new car that not only wouldn't break down, but would have a working stereo and a windshield cleaning fluid reservoir without a hole in it. You could clean your windshield while driving! Like normal people! Money does buy happiness!

Not so fast. Say you end up with that new car. You're ecstatic. What happens next?

In her latest book, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, Ariel Gore writes about moving up from a battered old Dodge Colt that "rode like a dirt bike and sounded like a leaf blower" to the car she'd dreamed of, shiny and red. "I didn't worry about roadside breakdowns or getting pulled over for missing lights or missing registration stickers," Gore enthuses.

What happened next? She got used to it.

That's what we do. Humans tend to adapt. Sometimes that gravitation to an established normal causes us to tolerate suffering. We stay in abusive relationships. We step past folks sleeping on San Francisco sidewalks. At some point, our brain decides it's all part of the scenery. In more positive circumstances, the ability to become accustomed to new conditions helps us thrive. If life demands we step up, and we do and we get used to an improved level of existence, that's a good thing -- right?

Sort of. Psychologists use the term "hedonistic adaptation." "We all fantasize that some life change will cheer us up -- permanently," Gore says. The reality is that acquiring bigger-better-faster-more boosts happiness only temporarily. For Gore, it took about two weeks -- not that she would've ever traded back, mind you, but "the magic had worn off."

So how do you distinguish between what you really need and what you think you need? What will actually make your life better (creating a lasting foundation of happiness) versus what will only seem to make your life better (once the initial buzz wears off, you'll be back to your old depressed self)? How do you practice gratitude (which studies consistently show increases one's happiness quotient significantly) when you're struggling and juggling to pay the bills? How do you remember to keep it up when the money's rolling in?

Stuff that has made my life better (or easier, and therefore better): Surfboard, wetsuit, a newer car (2001), KitchenAid stand mixer, good knives, cast iron pans, iMac computer and being lucky enough to rent a warm, light-filled home at the beach. Note: the biggest ticket items arrived as gifts or were only possible because we'd had a rare windfall. The 2001 Honda Civic arrived via my dad, who worried that our 1992 version wouldn't bear up under repeated trips to UCSF, where we regularly take our son for his diabetes check-ups. He was right -- the old car had broken down on our very first follow-up visit. The alternator went out while I was driving through a storm. At night. The headlights dimmed and I couldn't understand why and then all the car's lights disappeared, leaving me invisible and trying to pull over in the dumping rain, semi trucks whizzing past. I couldn't see the shoulder or where it dropped off to the valley below. My hands gripped the steering wheel as I prayed we wouldn't go over the side. Did a new-to-me car buy happiness after that? Hell yeah.

The other possessions? Surfing keeps me sane; I love to make quality meals, but have neither time nor patience for hours of slicing and grating. Good cookware, sharp knives and handy appliances go a long way toward making meal preparation a more pleasant experience.

For someone else, it may be roller skates or excellent gardening tools. The trick is to figure out which stuff matters, then focus your spending on acquiring quality -- not cheap -- versions of those items. Look on eBay, Craigslist and thrift stores to save some cash. Sacrifice elsewhere in order to acquire what will serve you better in the long term. A KitchenAid mixer runs about $250, a sum of money it's nearly impossible for me to imagine spending on a single item. A month of frugal grocery shopping (rice and beans, anyone?), no eating out might allow me to purchase one with only 30 days of effort. (Whoa, that is a sort of startling indictment of how much we spend on food. Yikes.)

Of course, it's easy to get too hung up on things and the idea that if you just had the right combination of them, life would be perfect. I don't mean to suggest that's the case. Our tendency to over-shop, over-consume, has taken a huge toll on our psyches and our planet. I suggest buying as little as possible, then when you do buy, make sure it's something you'll cherish for years to come. How will this enrich my life and for how long? That's what you should ask yourself for every considered purchase.

Unsurprisingly, studies suggest people with close relationships to family and friends are happier than those without. Also, that people tend to take more pleasure in experiences than in things. Happiness is about the experiences you accumulate, not the things.

Therefore, the things you acquire should enhance 1) survival, and 2) the memories you are making as you move through life. I value my kitchen accoutrements not only because they help me feed my family (survival), but because I love having people over for dinner and conversation (experience).

Objects alone won't make us happy. However the right objects can enhance our lives, especially if they contribute to shared experiences with folks we enjoy.

It reads like fortune cookie wisdom, but it's true: Happiness comes from spending your money wisely and your time with people you love.  

 
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Jennifer Savage

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