When I was younger, I was very materialistic. I was driven to pursue college degrees and advance my career because I wanted to be able to afford the finer things in life: a big house, a luxury car, expensive clothes, trips abroad.
Ironically, now that I’ve attained my professional goal and earn a good salary, I don’t even want any of those things anymore. My husband and I live in a brick ranch house built in 1964. We both drive Hondas. I wear only clothes that I buy on sale for low prices. When we travel, which isn’t often, we visit relatives, go to the beach, or take long-weekend trips to places of historical interest (our favorites are St. Augustine, FL; Williamsburg, VA; Charlottesville, VA; and Washington, DC).
And I overflow with gratitude for all that I have.
My prayers almost always begin with thanks for my many blessings: God’s grace, my family and friends, good health, a comfortable home, a job I love. I know that this practice makes me a happier person. Research studies have shown that “gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”
Feeling grateful has also eliminated my desire to buy unnecessary new things just for fun. I have no interest in being enslaved by Bigger, Better, and More. These three snake-oil salesmen lure us in with shiny new objects and distract us from what’s really important in life. Don’t you know people who spend all of their time pondering or pursuing their next need or want — or fixing, cleaning, or otherwise maintaining objects they’ve already acquired? They don’t own stuff; their stuff owns them. To me, that’s no way to live. As 19th-century poet William Wordsworth put it in “The World Is Too Much With Us”:
Succumbing to materialism and commercialism certainly does blunt our powers — our creativity, our compassion, our humanitarianism, our charity, our intellectual development, and our spiritual growth. I’ve learned that once we can provide a comfortable life for ourselves and our families, we can significantly increase our happiness by turning our focus to strengthening those powers. I’ve also learned that in times of abundance, it’s far more rewarding to share with others than to acquire unnecessary luxuries for myself.
In an 1889 essay entitled “The Gospel of Wealth”, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie wrote that “the man who dies…rich, dies disgraced.” Carnegie, who was the wealthiest person in America in the early 20th century, gave away 90 percent of his vast fortune before he died in 1919.
I’m not sure how Carnegie defined the word rich. How do you define it? Making $500k a year? Having a million dollars in your bank account? Here’s an idea: Maybe the best definition of rich is earning more than the “happiness benchmark.” This amount, which varies by state, is the income amount that brings emotional well-being. Our happiness continues to increase until that income level is reached; however, exceeding that amount will not add to our contentment. Once we have enough to meet our basic needs, getting and spending more does not make us any happier.
At that point, increasing happiness involves doing these two things: 1) Feeling grateful every day, and 2) Using our surplus to improve the lives of others.