03 Sep An interesting article on happiness and excess
The stress of excess
VENI, VIDI, VISA: I came, I saw, I maxed it – it’s the battle cry of the noughties consumer. Retail therapy – the ultimate salvation from the stresses of modern living – called, and excessive spending answered. Older generations may still be saving for a rainy day, but their offspring have bought in to the Blairite riffs of ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. Some 15% of 18- to 24-year-olds think an Isa is an iPod accessory rather than an individual savings account; one in ten reckon it’s an energy drink.
Our lack of fiscal responsibility perversely goes hand in hand with our demand for luxury goods, or at least for the perceived trappings of wealth. Labels, once the domain of all things couture, have become logos on everything from baseball caps to supersized gold chains. Perfumes, once dreamed up by the world’s top designers, are now sold on the back of every Tom, Dick and Jade Goody.
Does this all mean that we are a species defined by greed? Or is this apparent quest for constant gratification a sign that we are searching for something more meaningful and we’ve simply been waylaid by the blip of consumerism along the way? Are we any closer to finding an alternative, more meaningful option?
Current excess does not stop at fashion: more than 4.2 million Britons have no qualms about jetting off on their next holiday before actually paying for the last, according to statistics from Alliance & Leicester. The long-term implications of such frivolities continue to be a moot point. Research from Scottish Widows shows that people in the UK would rather talk about sex and health than money. One in three adults refuses to plan their finances at all, and those who do find the time to review them set aside just five minutes a week.
Stirling-based psychologist Paul Dudchenko admits that the instant gratification of buying something is difficult to resist, but warns of the long-term pitfalls. “The minute we feel any sort of pleasure we want to reinforce it. Some people are very conscious of what others think of them and want to impress them – so there’s an argument to suggest the purchasing of things can reinforce that, by not only highlighting what they think of themselves but also what they want others to think of them.
‘so often people focus on the short-term horizon (ie the simple pleasure of having bought something and having it in their hands) because the long-term implication (the Visa bill we cannot afford to pay) is tied up with negative consequences.”
Amid all our splurges we are, it seems, fiscally and emotionally challenged. Britain’s personal debt increases by ê_Ô£1 million every four minutes. Only half the population know the balance on their credit cards. It may well be the case that the rest make up the 50% who do not have a will, a fact not lost on consumer psychologists. We may not be able to buy our way out of mortality, they suggest, but we can offload our existential angst on to a credit card. After all, “There are some things that money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard.”
Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre, a new book by Newsweek culture and fashion writer Dana Thomas, hints at how we got here – and at a wind of change blowing through our lifestyles of excess in the West. Examining the shift from exclusivity to accessibility, Thomas takes a journey through the history of some of fashion’s biggest names to discover when Louis Vuitton and HermêÑÔës stopped being the domain of the elite and started being the accepted wares of the Everyman.
According to Thomas, the populist rammy for all things luxury remained out of style “until a new and financially powerful demographic – the unmarried female executive – emerged in the 1980s”. As both disposable income and credit-card debt soared, the middle class became the target of provocative advertising campaigns and film stars and celebrities were courted as style icons. “The luxury industry has changed the way people dress,” says Thomas. “It has become part of our social fabric. To achieve this, it has sacrificed its integrity, undermined its products, tarnished its history and hoodwinked its consumers.”
Luxury can be a constant – but if it’s an everyday aspect of your life, eventually it becomes mundane. It has to have that ‘treat’ factor, an exclusive air to make it feel special.
But Thomas’s sassy snapshot of noughties excess is merely the tip of the iceberg. There are other signs that we are falling out of love with excess. It’s not just that mass popularity has reduced the allure of luxury goods; it’s because we are finding that having it all has its own stresses. For a start, where do you keep it all – and how do you keep it safe from the acquisitive glances of the have-nots?
Look at all those A-listers who claim to want to live a simpler life. They are ahead of the curve in that they have been dealing with the consequences of having it all for longer than most. They even make the answer seem simple. Pare down to perk up. Strip back the excess and find your inner chi.
Catherine Zeta Jones reportedly pocketed ê_Ô£4 million in 2002 for her role as Velma Kelly in Chicago, but said recently that she is ready to embrace the private life. “I do the best I can with my work and when I hit 40, maybe things won’t change. If my career falters, that’s fine by me. I just think it’s good I’m aware of the possibility of that.”
The actress, who lives in Bermuda with her husband Michael Douglas, divides her time between the family home, holidays and her charity work. “I’m very philanthropic,” Zeta Jones has said. “I love that part of my life.” Worthy words for a woman who stood in court during a battle for photos of her wedding and admitted a million dollars was “nothing” to her.
Then, there’s Julia Roberts who is famously enjoying the pared-down life with husband Danny Moder and their twins Phinnaeus and Hazel free of Hollywood’s excess. That gargantuan grin is in residence more than ever, not on the red carpet but at home on her multi-million-dollar family ranch in Taos, New Mexico. Then there’s religion and the ranks of Gywneth Paltrow and Madonna with their kabbalah, macrobiotic diets and yoga. Better still, we could adopt our very own rainbow brood. Paltrow is already talking about giving up her celebrity credentials to follow her altruistic buddies and do her bit by adopting a brother or sister for Apple and Moses. She is even supposedly looking for an island to buy so that her family can enjoy a simpler life.
They’ve got it all, yet they are still looking for something else. Maybe their problem is caused by the paradox of trying to spend their way out of their lives of excess – an idyllic family life on an island or home on the range does not come cheap.
Certainly, buying their way out of problems hasn’t worked for mere mortals. Despite the highest British income levels ever and a buoyant economy, many of us are profoundly unhappy: in a recent survey, 55% said they had felt depressed in the past year. Those who said they had been depressed were twice as likely to say that they had bought something later and regretted it.
And so to the murky relationship between money and happiness. Why is it that the more money we have, the more we want? “Once you get basic human needs met, a lot more money doesn’t make a lot more happiness,” says Dan Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard University and the author of the new book Stumbling on Happiness. “When you imagine how much you’re going to enjoy a Porsche, what you’re imagining is the day you get it.”
When your new car loses its ability to make your heart go pitter-patter, he says, “you tend to draw the wrong conclusions. Instead of questioning the notion that you can buy happiness from a car salesman, you begin to question your choice of car.”
So what is the answer for people trying to clamber off the hedonistic consumer treadmill and plant themselves safely back on terra firma?
Edinburgh-based life coach Kate French concedes there is no simple answer, but prioritising, she says, is a good start. “Life is a bit like a puzzle: each separate piece on its own has little meaning but together they form the perfect picture. You could say that each aspect of our life – home, work, family, career, relationships -represents one piece of our life and together they make up a complete picture.
“When life seems unclear it could be because there can be one or more pieces missing – or somehow they’re placed in the wrong part of the picture. The search for balance, the need for harmony and a desire to understand our real values and purpose in life can add to the sense of owning a mismatched puzzle.”
So really, it’s a bit like cutting up your credit cards into tiny pieces – then realising you can’t put them back together again. And probably far too many of us can relate to that.