I love the way the trees move in wind,
not straining against the force,
but bending back in ecstasy to accept the warm embrace.
Wind in the leaves tickles the branches and they sparkle,
flashing the light of joy.
I want to be a tree,
stretching my limbs to let you run through me
until the light from your breath
shines out from every pore.
I walk through unexplored woodlands and happen across a tiny hummingbird sitting on a thimble-sized nest containing two jellybean eggs. My heart races with excitement, and I feel blessed to stumble upon such a miracle. I kiss my baby’s neck in the space between the ear and shoulder. He smells faintly of breast milk and caramel and his giggling laughter, unencumbered by any restraint, fills me completely.
Imagine the happiest moments of your life - the birth of a child, a camping trip, childhood memories of days outside climbing trees and playing stickball with the neighborhood gang. Chances are your happy memories are devoid of details such as what you were wearing or the latest gadget you might have been sporting. Joy is not contained in your first iPhone or pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes. Family, community and connectedness are universal hallmarks of human joy.
My treasure chest of joy includes a collection of quirky things my kids said when they were little that made me laugh so hard I cried, countless days spent at the beach or walking in the wilderness, a rained-out camping trip and days and evenings spent with friends and family.
No consumer good can make us happy. The momentary high we get from the initial purchase soon wears off and may even make us more miserable when we realize the promised boost of social status is not as much a reality as the increased balance on the credit card.
From the day a child is born into Western civilization, he/she is bombarded with the consumer culture. The television tells us that in order to be successful and to fit in, we have to look a certain way, dress a certain way and accessorize ourselves with the latest technology. Children and teenagers, desperately seeking connection and identity are particularly vulnerable to this aggressive marketing. By the time adulthood is reached, the subliminal brainwashing that insists our success, popularity and happiness is connected to consumer products is so engrained that few question the ulterior motives behind the smokescreen.
Sucked into the cleverly-crafted marketing, consumerism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The teenagers who manage to acquire the right accoutrements are universally admired by the rest and thereby do achieve popularity and social success. But this success is simulated and is not based on one’s true identity but on an artificial veneer. The possessor of the purchased persona does not feel secure in their success, but even more vulnerable, knowing that the purchased identity is nothing but a house of cards that will collapse into the empty heap upon the merest inspection.
While American purchasing power has increased threefold since the end of World War II, largely due to the reduced costs of manufacturing achieved by the exploitation of cheap labor markets abroad, The National Opinion Research Center, an organization that has been conducting polling over the same time period, has found that American happiness has not increased at all. Having more stuff has not made us happier.
Consumerism would be merely a sad testament to the shallowness of Western culture if it weren’t so utterly destructive. The rise of the consumer culture since the end of World War II parallels a widening gap between rich and poor, the loss of almost all U.S. manufacturing jobs to cheaper overseas markets, an explosion of solid wastes, rampant global resource depletion and the global toxification of land, air and water. Our stuff is killing us and killing the planet too. As the globalized marketplace expands to fuel its sociopathic need for exponential growth, the Western consumerist culture spreads its disease across the globe to unwitting populations who, once truly happy, now seek to emulate the cleverly-marketed promise of happiness by stuff.
How do you measure happiness? Once the basic needs of food, shelter and clean air and water are met, a person’s happiness rests almost entirely on the quality of interpersonal relationships, enjoyable work and leisure time. None of these things can be purchased from a store.
On the other hand, money is required to purchase stuff. While food, water and shelter were once readily obtainable from the natural world, consumer goods have always needed an infusion of cold hard cash. To acquire the things marketing tells us we crave, we must go to work. In today’s uncertain job market, Americans are spending more and more time at work. Productivity is way up, but salaries are not. The entire work week is sacrificed on the altar of employment with the weekend serving for some, if not all, as a kind of consolation prize.
In another year or two, the latest flat screen TV will be usurped by a newer, slicker model. The new car smell will have worn off. The battery in the iPod will have worn out. And, all the latest fashions hanging in the closet will be so last week. All the stuff will make its way to a landfill somewhere eventually, and all those hours spent working to get all that stuff could have been spent doing something meaningful that really would have made us happy. But we continue to persist in the insanity, selling our lives to others in order to fill our living spaces with meaningless crap, all the while wondering why we are so damn miserable.
Hug your spouse and kids. Smell their skin. Take a walk. Plant some food. Read a good book. Spend some quality time with a non-human friend. Then cut up the credit cards and be happy.