This very recent New York Times article about consumerism and happiness – and the apparent lack of correlation between them – has some good points for us young ‘uns. In addition to giving some interesting insights on hedonic adaptation (people quickly become used to any change in order to maintain a stable level of happiness), the value of building anticipation (waiting/building up to something before you do it or buy it makes us happier), and the proven relationship between the quality of our relationships and our level of happiness, the article also focused on how the economic uncertainty (and outright distress, in some cases) of the last couple of years has resulted in people spending less and actually being happier because of how they spend the money they do let go of.
It turns out that our newfound stinginess – a somewhat back-to-basics movement, as the article calls it – might actually make us happier in the long run. And why not? We didn’t foresee it comin, but it might be the very thing that leads us to spend more time with our loved ones, choose experiential adventures over $300 shoes, and spend more time investing in our relationships than our portfolio. I wouldn’t really call it ironic, just a surprising twist of the best kind. Speaking anthropologically (and from mere curiosity), the potential of this “new normal” for our generation is interesting to say the least: we’ve come into our 20s with a different spending mentality from that which our older siblings had in the 90s or the early 2000s, but will it last? Are these changes to habits and frames of mind a trend that will guide our decisions into our 30s and 40s or will we swing back and overcompensate as soon as our grad school loans are paid off and start splurging on all kinds of non-basic extravagances?
I for one have tried actively to value experiences over purchases, in part because my own family history is based on emigration and travel. Yes, that history was fueled more by ‘need’ than ‘want’ and it was neither easy nor glamorous for my parents, but the cumulative effect was to make experience-seeking and risk-taking more accessible to me, and in some ways more casual and within rich. As a result, I spent a lot of energy figuring out ways to travel and work abroad on grants and fellowships and have been (incredibly) lucky to accrue a lot of amazing experiences in the last couple of years despite being on a college student budget. I guess in my case, the Times article’s premise is right: being in a financial tight spot shifted my value placement to experiences, not goods.
As much as life is bound to settle as we grow older, I am determined to not loose this mentality or barter it for material items that have always been further down the priority totem pole. As a disclaimer, I am aware that well-adjusted adults don’t usually take 4 months out of the year just to have cool experiences….despite this, I for one believe in the value of actively clinging to habits that have made us happy, even if our growing salaries tempt us to think Midas was not that crazy/tragic after all.