Why Buying Stuff Will Never Make You Happy

The more you buy, the more you have to lose

“We’ve become a nation measuring out our lives in shopping bags and nursing our psychic ills through retail therapy” — Chicago Tribune, Christmas Eve 1986

Retail therapy is not the only phrase that describes our growing consumerism culture. There are popular ones like Buyer’s Remorse (the regret after making a purchase) and esoteric ones like Oniomania (compulsive buying disorder).

Why do these disorders exist?

Turns out people whose identity is not firmly-held often indulge in “validation through purchases” as their identity-markers in this world.

Don’t believe me? I understand it’s difficult to realize just how much we can be attached to stuff.

Consider a famous example — Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Feeling manic glee at spending sprees, she was addicted to shopping often secretly running up large bills on credit followed by depressive reactions in the face of results.

This molehill further turns into a mountain when you put online shopping in the mixture. The ease and security of buying products online make buying almost effortless. Amazon has earned millions of dollars with its patent on the one-click buying functionality.

Companies regularly make us feel like superheroes with high societal status if we buy their products.

They invent a problem and then persuade us to solve it. Essentially they’re taking advantage of the frailties of people’s ego to get them to open their wallets for purchases.

And we’ll always be taken advantage of, if we don’t understand this.

Collecting stuff will never give us true happiness. We can keep on chasing high after high, but they will always be accompanied by a low.

Here’s why.

Planned Obsolescence

In October 2014, Apple and Samsung were fined €10m and €5m respectively for releasing software updates that slowed down users’ phones to motivate substitution with a newer model.

While this was the first time for Samsung, not so much for Apple. The two firms did not provide a clear benefit for upgrading to the new versions. Further, they didn’t outline a way for users to switch back to the previous one.

Whether these allegations were true does not matter. The premise makes perfect sense though. To encourage consumers to buy a new release every year, Apple needs to nudge them in the right direction.

This is seen in many industries — automotive, electronics, and fashion to name a few.

With companies trying to lure you with the latest upgrades and the in-fashion products, it’s hard to ever find satisfaction in a purchase.

There will always be something better. Even if companies are not as evil as I’m making them seem, what you own will be obsolete sooner or later.

The More You Buy, the More You Have to Lose

The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” — Thoreau

When you buy something, you not only spend money on it, you spend a piece of your life. The bigger the possession, the bigger the piece of life you exchange for it.

Possessions always require maintenance and upkeep.

You worry about them. You fear losing them. Every physical item you buy adds one more thing in your life to be stolen or damaged.

I’m talking about the proverbial pretty vase you bought for the pretentious side-table kept beside your larger-than-life couch. You’re always afraid someone will tip it off and break it to pieces.

I’m talking about the proverbial painting by a famous artist no one has ever heard of. You’re always afraid your child will smudge it.

Physical items often take away more value than they add.

Experiences > Stuff

The one thing I love about the minimalist movement is a heightened focus on pursuing experiences.

Think about it.

Do you love the dress you bought, or the experience of shopping and visiting different malls?

Do you love the Roman painting or do you love the feeling of roaming in the streets of Rome breathing and living the culture?

Plenty of research points to this — humans value experiences more than stuff. This is why you see people traveling the world with one backpack.

The joy of beautiful experiences combined with the freedom of owning less is the ultimate life hack.

You Can Never Impress Others

Keeping up with the Joneses is a bad strategy for living life.

Someone will always have more.

Moreover, everyone is too busy impressing others to be impressed by you. It’s a made-up psychological trap inside our minds that forces us to pursue material success to impress others.

Our self-worth needs to come from a stronger foundation than that.

Here’s What You Can Do

When pulled by a strong desire, Epicurius asked himself: “What will happen to me if I get what I want? How will I feel after?”

If you find yourself getting too excited by the idea of shopping and acquiring stuff, think about why that is.

Do you want to impress someone? Is there a hole you’re trying to fill? There’s always a deeper reason and I’m sure you won’t like it. Objective introspection is hard. But you can do it if you’re honest with yourself.

Also think about this explanation by Adyashanti, an American born spiritual teacher:

When we make a purchase and/or get what we want, we are temporarily happy and fulfilled. But the reason for happiness is not because we got what we wanted, but because for a brief period of time, we stopped wanting, and thus we experience peace and happiness.

This brings us back to the simple conclusion often derived by all religions — desire is the root of misery. But before we can do that, we need to redirect our desire to higher objectives.

A desire for simple living, high thinking is still a desire, but in the long-run, it’s much more likely to give you the happiness you need.

In fact, the only way to break your attachment to stuff is to pursue higher goals like love, better relationships, and spiritual development.

Know what gives real happiness — and then be greedy for that. Instead of longing for fleeting highs, strive for ever-lasting sources of joy.

Don’t pursue the aright things in the wrong places.

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Written on October 14, 2020