Getting a Life

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET
  • Philip Slater Former professor and chair, Brandeis Sociology Department

We humans are always trying to reduce our vulnerability to fate. With dances we try to control the weather. With magic amulets and superstitious rituals we try to ward off accidents and influence the outcome of contests and games. Today the most common way we try to control fate is with money.

But it often seems as if we're still awaiting delivery on the control that money was supposed to bring. We live so much of our lives in man-made, technological environments that we've come to expect such control. We move switches and lights come on or the room gets warm, which leads us to expect a similar control over things like love, pleasure, success. "Why isn't my life working when I'm doing all the right things?" we say, as if the universe were a cruel parent, maliciously withholding approval. And the more money we have the more we put ourselves in the grip of this expectation, and thus become more vulnerable to disappointment and discontent. The wealthiest among us certainly seem to complain much more than the poor -- forever griping about service, quality, or delays. Money was supposed to make everything smooth -- the way it does in movies -- and it so often fails to live up to its promise.

Nor can it. For as we get more money we find we spend more time managing it, and managing the things it buys. Our lives become more complicated, and while the stress of not having enough money is eased, a new stress is added--the stress of not having enough time. We find we're spending our lives waiting on our possessions--cleaning them, repairing them, moving them about, getting rid of them. One of the problems with material things is that each purchase requires others. You buy a widget. Then you buy accessories for your widget. Then you buy a container for your widget, and a carrier for transporting it. Then you buy some spray for cleaning your widget, and a kit for repairing it, and an attachment for it, and so on. And by the time you do all that your widget is obsolete and looks tacky next to somebody's brand new widget, and when you buy that one you find that none of the other stuff works with it and you have to start all over again. Ivan Illich calculated that if you added up the time Americans spent driving their cars, taking care of their cars, and earning the money necessary to purchase and maintain their cars, they were getting about five miles to the hour--barely better than they would walking. And if you add the time and money people spend at the gym working out, to compensate for the fact that they don't walk (even to the gym, usually), it's pretty much a wash. We're working harder than ever, and have less time than ever, earning the money to pay for all our time-saving and labor-saving equipment.

One reason our assets so often fail to keep pace with our wants is the high price we pay for social status. Ken Murray once described Hollywood's famous this way: "they spend more than they make, on things they don't need, to impress people they don't like." They try to convince themselves their lives are worthwhile by staring fixedly into the cold mirror of other people's envy.

Men who feel themselves unattractive to women, for example, often try to compensate by buying expensive sports cars--an approach strongly approved by advertisers. But as a young woman friend once commented, "A dweeb with a Porsche is still a dweeb." If a car, or a dress, or a house, "says who you are", as ads so often claim, you're merely a manikin.

To be a billionaire is considered by many to be the pinnacle of success in America. Reasonably invested it will produce an income of a hundred million a year. Money will pour into your pockets no matter how extravagant you are. You can travel anywhere, in any way you want; eat, drink, or wear anything you want; live anywhere you want, and not put a dent in your income. You can, of course, build mansions you never spend any time in, buy yachts that never weigh anchor, and so on. You can buy fame, you can buy power, and you can buy the means of acquiring more money. What you can't buy is the ability to enjoy what you have. Many who possess gorgeous views never look out the window.

During the dotcom bubble of the late 1990s so many people became disillusioned about money it acquired a clinical moniker--"sudden wealth syndrome"--denoting the depression that comes to people who discover that wealth hasn't enriched their lives. We heard a lot about men and women giving up high-paying jobs to spend more time enjoying loved ones, or to pursue careers that paid less but were more fulfilling. Yet most Americans are still trying to "get ahead" of some imagined opponent--eager to trade the rich feast of joy for the thin gruel of triumph.

Recent psychological research on happiness has shown that thi8ngs like money, beauty, and social prominence don't seem to make life any better. People who are unhappy without money will be unhappy with it. Ambition and contentment are opposites, after all.

Yet it's hard to keep our balance with all the voices shouting at us to buy, gorge, and compete--hard to focus on what we want out of life. Technology, for example, is always about what we will be able to do, rather than on what we might want to do. The implication is that you ought to want to do what you can do. You ought to want to go from zero to 60 mph in six seconds, you ought to want to replace your rake with a noisy, dusty machine, you ought to want to have 500 TV channels. The price gap between needs and wants is substantial, but the price gap between wants and oughts is gigantic.

If the American consumer did a cost-benefit analysis on every purchase before it was made, 90% of it would stay in the store. Politicians and economists shudder at this prospect. It would be an economic catastrophe, they say. Our economy depends on people buying things they don't need and will throw away in a few years. This is why Christmas is so important to our economy. As easy as it is to buy ourselves things we don't need, it's far easier to buy them for someone else.

We all want to enjoy ourselves, and--because we're a social species--to feel useful, to contribute. We want to love and feel loved. We want to understand the world around us and learn new skills. We want to have interesting and challenging experiences. But money and possessions aren't necessary to achieve any of these goals, a reality hard to remember amid the deafening assault of media hype and technological possibilities. We so often feel out of control in our man-made world, and in the midst of our confusion we cling to the idea that more money will give us more control. But the quest for more money is what creates the chaos in the first place.