“Let all your efforts be directed to something, let it keep that end in view. It’s not activity that disturbs people, but false conceptions of things that drive them mad.”—SENECA, ON TRANQUILITY OF MIND, 12.5*
Questioning why we’re here is part of our nature. Even my younger daughter turned to me a few weeks ago and said, “We’re here for a little bit, and then we die.” I think she was angling for a sleepover, but I suppose the sentiment was true. Impermanence in the spiritual sense is the idea that everything, particularly human life, as my daughter made clear, is transient. We’re here. Then we’re gone. We’re a blip on the proverbial radar. So shouldn’t we savor each moment with as much presence as we can possibly muster? Sure, the hustle and bustle of everyday life is distracting, but it shouldn’t be too confounding that we miss the important moments.
Stuff and the pursuit of stuff are incredibly distracting. Wanting rather than savoring. I love Naval Ravikant’s comment in his blog post that “Desire is a contract that you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want.” (Note—I originally heard Naval mention this statement on Tim Ferriss’ podcast.) Teaching money smarts helps you and your child see the world beyond the material things that surround us. Stuff ‘s hold over us is so powerful that I made it a key character in my new book, The Art of Allowance.
Here’s an excerpt from the book:
“We amass material things for the same reason that we eat—to satisfy a craving.”
Stuff. It’s the elephant in the room. In some cases, this metaphor is almost literal.
Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan noted in their self-determination theory that three human needs are required to live a fulfilled life: autonomy, competence and relatedness.** If we are in pursuit of or have lives filled with appropriate amounts of each, then we are much more likely to be happy, fulfilled or, as Krista Tippett of On Being prefers to say, “flourishing.”***
Autonomy is essentially freedom. (We drive the car.) Competence refers to our ability to be experts at something. (We fix the car.) Relatedness is genuine human interaction. (We drive our fixed car to a friend’s house to sing karaoke, bake cookies and play Settlers of Catan.)
Did you notice what is missing from Deci and Ryan’s imperatives? Stuff! How many of us recognize the inability of stuff to provide fulfillment as we find ourselves at the mall with shopping bags in hand? I’m from New Jersey. We know malls. We know stuff. If a boy from Jersey can learn that stuff is not fulfilling, then anyone can.
Stuff can provide only momentary jolts of excitement—not happiness in the larger sense. Understanding the power that stuff holds over us is critical as we begin the process of raising money-smart, money-empowered kids.
We don’t need to feel guilty for wanting. We do, however, need to know exactly why we want. Is it a desire planted by marketers? Or is it something that saves us time, our most precious resource? Are we engaging in “retail therapy” to heal emotional wounds?**** If we’re fulfilling an emotional void with stuff, then we probably want it for the wrong reasons. The rush we receive from stuff is always fleeting.
A restaurant that makes our taste buds sing may be a fulfilling experience. My wife and I enjoy going out to dinner. We love food. Plus, it gives us a much-needed respite from the kids. (And if you go on half-price Monday, then hooray for you!) Experiences matter.
My dad keeps a lot of memorabilia he’s collected through the years and gets a lot of enjoyment sharing it with old friends. In a sense, he’s creating
new experiences, and I wouldn’t typically classify these mementos as stuff. In the words of Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up , these items “spark joy” for him.*****
Thinking about what experiences and items are meaningful to you is worthwhile. Understanding what drives us makes it easier to help our kids learn to avoid the scourge of stuff perhaps earlier than we did.
Underscoring this point, BJ Miller relayed on The Tim Ferriss Show podcast that his favorite $100-or-under purchase in the past year was a bottle of wine. In fact, it was just a roughly $30 bottle to enjoy with friends. What wine it was exactly wasn’t that important. The value came from its impermanence and its being shared with friends, sparking meaningful discussion. Those moments of conversation would be gone in an instant, and THAT realization created the meaning. Purchasing a new car, picking up a new gadget or buying a piece of clothing will never yield the same result.
One of the reasons that we are easily fooled into thinking that purchases will provide more happiness than they do is the focusing illusion. Here is how one example is described in Daniel Kahneman’s excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow:
Compare two commitments that will change some aspects of your life: buying a comfortable new car and joining a group that meets weekly, perhaps a poker or book club. Both experiences will be novel and exciting at the start. The crucial difference is that you will eventually pay little attention to the car as you drive it, but you will always attend to the social interaction to which you committed yourself. […] You are likely to exaggerate the long-term benefits of the car, but you are not likely to make the same mistake for a social gathering or for inherently attention-demanding activities such as playing tennis or learning to play the cello.******
The effect is somewhat due to our inability to account properly for time in our evaluation of, in this case, the value of experiences with people versus our belief in the impact that a purchased good may have on our happiness. Kahneman further describes the overall effect:
The focusing illusion creates a bias in favor of goods and experiences that are initially exciting, even if they will eventually lose their appeal. Time is neglected, causing experiences that will retain their attention value in the long term to be appreciated less than they deserve to be.******
Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, also talks about the focusing illusion, and his book’s most important point is that we are very poor at understanding what exactly will make us happy in the future. We tend to see our future selves from the point of view of our existing selves, neglecting to understand that our future selves are different people, or at least people with a different view of any particular physical object.*******
In case you’re doubting how easily we can fool ourselves, it’s worth watching this video from Daniel Simon’s Selective Attention Test: http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/videos.html .
SPOILER ALERT — Please watch the video before you continue!
Kahneman sums up an important learning:
Indeed, the viewers who fail to see the gorilla are initially sure that it was not there—they cannot imagine missing such a striking event. The gorilla study illustrates two important facts about our minds: we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.********
It’s this being blind to our blindness that we all need to be wary of in our day-to-day lives and in the choices that we make.
I waffle back and forth between whether I’m positive or negative about my outlook for our future. I believe it’s essential that we break our ties with consumerism, particularly here in the United States. And although more and more folks with whom I talk seem to want to do this, their actions belie their words. Frankly, even my own actions contradict my words from time to time. For example, though I’ve embraced Essentialism, a distant cousin of Minimalism, I still find myself drawn to Amazon too often to make purchases that are altogether unnecessary. As a family, we have definitely done better to focus more on experiences, but we still have not totally broken away from the consumerism that I think is sucking our country dry.
Here’s how I looked at happiness in a more optimistic light in The Art of Allowance:
“Much of society equates self-worth with net worth.” —James Altucher
I am hopeful we have an opportunity to become a country more focused on happiness than wealth. By that, I mean happiness in the larger sense: thriving, fulfilling, flourishing. I’m optimistic we can define ourselves more commonly by our beliefs and the value we provide to society rather than by stuff .
Fringe ideas and institutions, like the Gross Happiness Index and the Center for a New American Dream, that are moving mainstream are encouraging. These visions balance the outsized importance of Gross Domestic Product and the “American Dream,” focused on things, with feelings of well-being and fulfillment. Remembering that our founding fathers believed “the pursuit of happiness”—happiness in the larger sense—to be one of our “unalienable rights” is instructive.
When I mention this vision to parents, I’ll often get “skeptical face” in return. You know, the expression you get when your angriest friend insists you listen to his transformative self-help audio.
I get it. When we are in the throes of parenting and see our kids bewitched by brands, this shiny, happy vision I have sounds more distant than our chance to live in a galaxy far, far away. But I believe it may be coming.
Yet challenges to this vision surround us. We’re here for a substantially short time. If saying that no one on his deathbed ever wished he’d worked more is cliché, then why do so many Americans continue to work themselves to the bone? Hyperconnectedness (Facebook , Twitter, email) certainly contributes to this attitude, as does our inability to say “no.”
Fortunately, awareness of this problem is growing. Many of us are beginning to move from the pursuit of stuff to “the pursuit of happiness” for ourselves and for our families. Though they are certainly not for everyone, fringe movements like “Minimalism” are gaining traction, and they underscore this point. And though having only fifteen worldly possessions is not for everyone, more of us are saying ‘yes’ to what we believe is good for our well being and ‘no’ to what isn’t. That gives me hope and is one reason I wrote this book—to try to make a small contribution to this transition.
Now close your eyes, and imagine a world in which all of us, including our kids, can grasp the meaning of impermanence. A world in which we’re not wanting the next thing, but we’re savoring what we have. Right now. In this moment. I recall my heading off to college and my parents wistfully telling me to savor the experience because my college years would be some of the best years of my life. That first foray into freedom is wonderful. And, of course, it isn’t the dorm room or the fresh sheets or the new computer that I remember. It’s those moments lost in time but not in memory—like hiking up Mt. David (Fellow Batesies rejoice!) to watch the sunrise or organizing and participating in “Play Day” with the freshman for whom I was a Junior Advisor.
I fervently believe that the earlier we can convey the importance of now and the impermanence of stuff to our kids, the better off they will be. Reaching this goal is an essential element of raising money-smart children.
Now back to our world of dreams in which kids and adults are present in every moment. Where conversations aren’t constantly derailed by buzzing pockets. And, really, is there anything more rude than leaving a conversation for the impersonal, “Hey, buddy, this inanimate device’s chirping is more interesting than what you’re saying,” that a phone signifies? Of course, change does start with us, the adults, putting our stuff down. Stowing away our phones when we’re crossing the street. Closing our computers when our kids want to engage us in conversation. Turning off Game of Thrones if our children have an important question to ask. BTW … I’m making a note to myself to follow my own advice as I write this post. I know it’s not easy.
Stuff is impermanent. Presence matters.
*Holiday, Ryan and Hanselman, Stephen. The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2016), 13.
**Ryan, Richard M. and Edward L. Deci. “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being.” American Psychologist 55.1 (2000): 68. See also: Pink, Daniel. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (New York: Penguin Group, 2011), 71-73.
***“Calming Philosophies for Chaotic Times—Krista Tippett.” The Tim Ferriss Show with Tim Ferriss . The Tim Ferriss Blog , February 21, 2017, https://tim.blog/2017/02/21/krista-tippett/.
****Plastow, Michael. “Retail Therapy: The Enjoyment of the Consumer.” British Journal of Psychotherapy 28.2 (2012): 206-07.
*****Kondo, Marie. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing . Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2014.
******Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), 406.
*******Gilbert, Dan. Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Random House, 2006.
********Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), 24.