Why Are We So Unhappy Having All These Things?

Crying Child, by D. Sharon Pruitt, © 2009 CC BY 2.0

One of my daughters today was approaching tears, when I almost blew up at her. I didn’t actually yell at her, I hope, but I felt my temperature and voice rising in unison.

She was upset, because we didn’t have an extra pool pass, so that she could go to the community pool party today, which our apartment complex throws for its residents each year. She’s an innovator, like her old man, so she quickly found a solution to her dilemma. She discovered that you don’t actually need a pool pass to get into the party—you only need a pass if you actually want to swim; and you can probably get around that rule, too, because it’s the end of the season. And so she went to the party with her friend and her friend’s mother.

But before that happened, for a few seconds there, she was standing in front of me, with that desperate, pouty, life-is-falling-apart face that feels like a wood rasp rubbing through my heart. And that made me sad and upset, not because we thought she couldn’t go, but because she so desperately wanted to go.

This, after I just pulled 2 all-nighters in a row, trying to get the Jots & Tittles book ready for press, and failing miserably, because there’s just too much editing that needs to be done on it. That’s another blog post. Suffice it to say that it still will be coming out, but not this week, nor next, nor probably the next after that neither. So I already feel like an exhausted failure. And I’m hungry and tired and cranky. And my head is still floating from too little sleep. And I’m backlogged on work, including some potentially paying work. And I just got a certified letter from the IRS, which makes it sound like the people we hired to get them off our backs haven’t yet succeeded. (You’ll know when I finally master this marketing thing, because then I’ll stop complaining about the IRS harassing me, and start complaining about how much I actually have to pay them.) And that is when my beloved daughter comes to me and nearly melts down all over me, all for lack of a pool pass.

You know, the apostle Paul said he had sometimes gone without, and he had sometimes had plenty, and he had learned the secret of being content, whatever his circumstances. Now, I think that’s a wonderful secret to master. Unfortunately, the apostle Paul didn’t have a wife and kids.

And We Liked It!

I must be getting old, because I’m starting to sympathize with Grumpy Old Man, from Saturday Night Live.

You know, when I was my daughter’s age, I didn’t have a pool pass. We didn’t have a pool. We didn’t have access to a pool. We didn’t even have a lawn sprinkler. (Yeah, we had to swim in our bathtubs. And we liked it!)

And the Internet— We didn’t have the Internet. I didn’t even get my first computer until I was 12, an original Sinclair ZX81, which connected to a black-and-white TV set (because that’s how the computer worked, in black and white—yeah, this was before we had color in our computers). It had 1KB of RAM (memory), literally, 2 million times less than my laptop here. I had to program it myself, in BASIC programming language, using a tiny, undersized, flat, membrane keyboard. And sometimes I would go to press the key, and it wouldn’t go, because that’s how bad the keyboard was, and so I would press it harder. But that was okay, because after you pressed each key, it took a second or so for the computer to process the keypress.

The ZX81 stored programs and data on an audio cassette recorder, and it literally didn’t have enough processing power to load data and display the screen image at the same time. So whenever you used the cassette, the screen would blank, and you could actually see the cassette’s FSK audio create strange, flickering bands of black and white on the screen. But you could also hear it playing through the TV speaker, so you could turn up the sound and watch the light show.

The ZX81 also had a “FAST” mode, which would white-out the display while the computer was running programs, in order to run those programs faster.

For my 13’th birthday, my parents bought me a 16KB RAM expansion pack—still over a 100,000 times less than what I have today—and I was swimming in memory. I actually didn’t know what to do with it all. If I could even generate that much data, what would I do with it all? Do you know how long it would take to save 16KB of data to cassette? A hell of a long time, let me tell you that. And because of the way the RAM expansion pack connected to the computer, if I pushed the keyboard keys too hard—remember those keyboard keys?—it would jostle the connection and crash the entire computer. Still, this opened up so many possibilities, like I could now actually fill up the whole screen with blocky graphics, all without running out of memory.

(And I promise you, all of that is true. I’m neither fabricating nor exaggerating.)

Yeah, that’s the way it was. And we liked it!

Materialism and Depression

Meanwhile, back in the 21’st century, when the recession hit last winter, I remember reading one article about how people said they were going to deal. I unfortunately don’t remember where I read it—and now I wish I had written down the citation—but the gist was: We may go out to eat less and watch fewer movies. But we’re not giving up our Internet!

I’ve marveled at the fact—since I discovered it—that while depression continues to become more and more common in the civilized world, it is almost unheard of in primitive societies. These are small, isolated communities. Sometimes, they are isolated by geography, such as the remaining island peoples. Other times, they are isolated by choice, such as the Amish. These poor, backward communities have almost nothing, except for hardship, work, family, and friends. And yet they appear on balance to be happier than we are.

There are of course a number of reasons why our modern life might stress us out and push us toward sadness and depression. Psychologists Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell point out a number of them in their book How to Lift Depression …fast. But one particularly sticks out at me this moment.

An incredible range of material goods is available to us now, and the continual advertising that attracts us to them, coupled with the purchasing power to buy, entices us to confuse ‘wants’ with ‘needs’. It is now considered normal to encourage greed in this way… The problem is that any society that has a preoccupation with ‘choosing’ and ‘having’ increases the self-absorption of its members. Self-absorption always becomes more pronounced in depression.

Now, I don’t think we ought to give up civilization and become cavemen again. Because, frankly, I like the things we have. I enjoy them, and I think it’s good for us to enjoy them. I also like choice and the ability to have, because I realize that these are the best ways to get both the things we want and the things we need.

However, I also believe there’s something to learn from these primitive cultures, because our never-before-heard-of wealth has clearly not made us happy. Maybe we need to relax and not get so stressed out when everything doesn’t go as planned. Maybe we need to realize that even if we someday must give up our cable TV and Internet, or survive on ramen noodles (as many rags-to-riches stories begin), or give away all our stuff and move in with our in-laws, that even then, we can still get our core needs met. Maybe we have to learn, as Saint Paul said, “the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”


P.S. My daughter had a fun time at the party, and she even brought me back some pizza and Oreo cookies.