Happiness, people, and stuff
Richard Layard's book, Happiness, offers compelling and overwhelming evidence from a variety of sources to indicate that, beyond a certain threshold, instead of adding a sense of satisfaction and well-being, wealth has exactly the opposite effect. Feelings of depression, isolation, and anxiety begin to increase when we have too much stuff. The writer of the Proverbs wisely asked for 'just enough' and it's my estimation that most of us reading this blog are beyond 'just enough'.
At the same time, I don't think the point is to vilify wealth, but rather to learn how to value the right things; relationships, community, simple pleasures, enough time to connect with neighbors and be creative - in our culture, if we have these things we're rich indeed, because we already have clean water, education, and access to enough food and shelter to make us comfortable. But the reality is that we've forsaken the pursuit of relational wealth in favor of increased material wealth at a time when many, though not all of us, already have enough. The result of this: increased isolation and social pathologies, and even a diminished sense of national physical health (America ranks 27th in the world in health care/ general health, behind all of Europe).
But just crying 'simplify' isn't a true solution. How, in a city where a house close to work costs over a half-million dollars, are people to find 'enough'? I fear that young people just starting in their careers are either destined to the pursuit of vocational choices made solely by their fiscal rewards, or that they will be destined to jump on the destructive treadmill that is the present American dream - working long hours, commuting long distances, and lacking either time or energy for civic involvement and intimacy during the few free hours that remain.
Perhaps what's needed is a move away from the isolationism and individualism that is the prevailing ethos of the west, and a move instead towards more communitarian values. This could show up in co-housing, food co-ops, community gardens, and...??? and yet I'm not convinced that these changes will ever be made unless required because of political, economic, or environmental necessity. Why is this? I'm wondering what holds us back from simplifying and sharing resources if we know that happiness is diminishing even as our wealth increases?