Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Bigger Is Better: Monster Mansions and Happiness


"Many wealthy people are little more
than the janitors of their possession."
  --Frank Lloyd Wright
I recently took a long drive down a two-lane, rural road in Scioto County. It was a beautiful day and a very pleasant ride as the country scenery offered so many scenic delights. I couldn't help but notice the beautiful homes along the way -- large, palatial home after home on well-kept, large acre estates. So many of these impressive, expensive places dotted the state route.

I was very surprised by the sheer number of these sprawling dwellings in my poor Appalachian county of 80,000, As I pondered the cost of each piece of real estate, I marveled at the magnitude of families who were able to afford to build and upkeep their country manors. I felt very proud of the industry of my fellow citizens because I know that just finding and holding a good job in my county is difficult. I am happy that hard work "pays off."

Yet, something about the size and scope of these dream dwellings gave me pause. In our society, we have subscribed to the philosophy that "bigger is better." More house, more land, more money, more expensive adult "toys" = what I want, what I need, what I live my life to own. I began to wonder when this material "richness equates to happiness" concept began to dominate the minds of so many.

I do not deny people who work hard their material dreams. In fact, I am happy for them. Perhaps, I am somewhat envious of their money flow, but as a 62 year-old man, I am beginning to wonder why "large" is the desired measure of success. People seem to be so driven to acquire more and more expensive "things" they just do not need, and still they increase their "hoard" until they finally expire.

True, it would have been wonderful to afford a spacious house when my in-home family consisted of my wife, my four children, and me. We honestly needed the space then; however, we just didn't have the money to buy the needed property, so we managed to get by in our small home. And, now, with all of the children "out of the nest," such surplus space would fall under "vain wants" and not "frugal needs."

When is the last time you heard someone wish for "just enough" or for "a small house and needed possessions"? I know most people view their happiness and success in material terms. They are conditioned to believe "the bigger, the better," and they love to sport symbols they perceive will raise their status.

Although in some cases, quantity certainly matters, I question that great wealth brings true contentment. Instead, I have seen the love of money breed insatiable greed while destroying families and futures.

Understand that people do become bored with the objects they purchase. Research suggests the novelty of a tangible item is finite, averaging six to twelve weeks. After a relatively brief period of time, the materialistic must feed the beast of possession.
(Ryan Howell, assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, 2009)

In addition, current research also shows that people who place a high value on wealth, status, and material possessions are more depressed and anxious and less sociable than those who do not. The new research shows that materialism is not just a personal problem. It’s also environmental.

“We found that irrespective of personality, in situations that activate a consumer mindset, people show the same sorts of problematic patterns in well being, including negative affect and social disengagement,” says Northwestern University psychologist Galen V. Bodenhausen.

The study, conducted with colleagues Monika A. Bauer, James E. B. Wilkie, and Jung K. Kim, appears in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

(Lucy Hyde, "Consumerism and Its Antisocial Effects Can Be Turned On -- Or Off,"
Association for Psychological Science, April 9 2012)

Material-driven extremists are so exhausted from the pursuit of "nice things" -- a big house, private school for the kids, fancy cars - that they are time-starved and depleted. Life is luxurious but unsatisfying and simply no fun.

I do think everyone needs to have some extras to be happy. Poverty is certainly not a desirable state. Those who are financially strapped are also miserable. So, perhaps the pertinent question is "How does money create the most lasting happiness?"

A study conducted in 2009 at San Francisco State University found that, when compared side by side, experiences made people much happier than objects. The survey asked 154 college students to write about either a certain experience or an object purchased within the last three months just to make him or her happy.

(San Francisco State University, "Buying Experiences, Not Possessions, Leads To Greater Happiness," ScienceDaily, February 17 2009)

The psychologists found that the participants expressed happiness about their purchases -- they were, of course, asked to write about a purchase that made them happy. However, the respondents who wrote about purchases of experiences, like a night out, tended to show more satisfaction when they actually made their purchase. They also showed expressed more satisfaction about the purchase at the time of the survey.

The San Francisco study showed that experiences not only give people greater happiness, they also provide lasting happiness. Experiences aren't quite as fleeting, possibly because folks can revise their memories of experiences. They don't tend to get bored with happy memories like they do with a tangible object.

Still, there is one common thread when it comes to experientialism and materialism -- money. What's significant about the idea that experience can bring happiness is that experience often does cost money.

Reporter Josh Clark says, "Orca whale watching trips, tickets to Japanese drumming shows, romantic dinners, birthday parties -- all of these things cost money. By extension, then, studies like the one conducted at San Francisco State University have inadvertently proven that money can buy happiness, despite reams of data that show wealthy people aren't any happier than the average Joe."

(Josh Clark, "What Makes People Happier -- Objects or Experiences?" howstuffworks.com)

My Take

Happiness remains the most cherished yet elusive of all human desires. It can be moment-to-moment or long-term.

Houses are material objects built of wood, brick, metal, and stone. Money is legal tender adorned by images of dead presidents. Large sums of dead presidents can buy mansions, but buying expensive material possessions does not guarantee long-term satisfaction or does not guarantee a happy, carefree life.

Worshiping materialism does not satisfy the longing inherent in some greedy individuals. They see possessions as status symbols that invoke power and allow dominance and control. They misuse their financial resources because they believe their quest and attainment of "more" is the measure of success.

I, personally, disagree. I think the wise realize "enough stuff is enough" and treasure many means other than wealth to help create their needed love and happiness. What do we teach our children about materialism? More, more, more... money, money, money... status, status, status... enough is enough?

Let me leave this post with some words from Josh Clark as he attempts to answer "What is happiness?" (howstuffworks.com)

"To a behaviorist, happiness is a cocktail of emotions we experience when we do something good or positive.

"To a neurologist, happiness is the experience of a flood of hormones released in the brain as a reward for behavior that prolongs survival.

"According to the tenets of several major religions, happiness indicates the presence of God.

"Philosophers have investigated happiness more thoroughly than anyone. They've boiled the debate over happiness down to a battle between two basic views, hedonia and eudaimonia.

"The hedonistic view of well-being is that happiness is the polar opposite of suffering; the presence of happiness indicates the absence of pain. Because of this, hedonists believe that the purpose of life is to maximize happiness, which minimizes misery.

"On the other side of the debate is eudaimonia, a term that combines the Greek words for "good" and "spirit" to describe the ideology. Eudaimonia defines happiness as the pursuit of becoming a better person. Eudaimonists do this by challenging themselves intellectually or by engaging in activities that make them spiritually richer people.

"The distinction between the two comes down to whether happiness is a destination (the hedonic view) or a journey (the eudaimonic philosophy). Put another way, hedonism is the belief that happiness is derived externally, while eudaimonism expresses the idea that happiness comes from within.

"Perhaps the distinction of what constitutes happiness should be left to the individual. After all, anxiety, a contradiction to happiness, might surface when you don't follow your own values -- whatever they may be."

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