This guest post is written by my friend Laura Vanderkam, author of the new book, All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know About Getting and Spending and her other wildly successful book, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. She will be our special guest on March 7, 2012, for our Clutter Diet Teleseminar Series– register for free here to listen and get an opportunity to ask Laura how money CAN buy happiness! www.clutterdiet.com/teleclass
No, the SC Johnson Company did not pay me to say this, but I love Ziploc® bags.
When I was growing up, my siblings and I brought our lunches to school most days, which meant my family went through an astonishing quantity of sandwich bags. We usually used some generic kind that we had to fold over or secure with a twist tie. I didn’t think much about that fact until the fall of 2006, when new airport security measures, enacted after a foiled transatlantic bomb plot, foisted Ziploc bags onto the public consciousness. Suddenly, passengers had to stash carry-on toiletries in clear zip-top bags. I tried out a Ziploc® on a November trip and…wow.
As soon as I started packing my toiletries in these bags, I was hooked. I’d take handfuls from the piles they’d give away in airports for people who forgot the rules and tried to carry their shampoo through security. I’d hoard and re-use them. And then, about two years ago, I realized something: I could buy these things.
Of course, right? But old habits die hard. The first time I pulled a package of Ziploc® brand bags off the shelf and paid the extra $2 for the privilege, it felt terribly decadent. I tried to go through the package as slowly as possible, eking out maximum pleasure from my splurge.
But here’s the question: how long will I feel this thrill? The answer is quite important in trying to figure out the relationship between money and happiness — and holds insights into how we view all our stuff.
On the treadmill
I’ve been pondering the question of Ziploc® bags a lot lately, whenever I look in my cupboard. A few years after my initial Ziploc® purchase, we started buying whole cases of the bags at Costco. The abundance was dizzying — but also an invitation not to wash and re-use the things. I also soon realized that my children, seeing me use Ziplocs all the time, won’t even question whether the extra cost is worth it in terms of their personal satisfaction. They won’t know anything else.
Researchers have a name for this phenomenon: the hedonic treadmill. According to the theory, as people make more money, their expectations rise in tandem. If you never go out to eat, the mere experience of sitting in a booth at T.G.I. Friday’s can be the height of bliss. If you go out to eat a lot, you soon notice that every restaurant serves some version of meat, fish, chicken and pasta. You need Michelin stars to look forward to your meal.
This happens with possessions, too. We have a closet full of serviceable shoes, but we soon adapt and want to kick up our style a notch. We buy new kitchen gadgets to keep things interesting. A child who’s never had a new box of crayons will be dazzled as he first feels that wax slide across paper. The second or third new box? Not so much. Joy diminishes over time. Pablo Picasso once said that “I’d like to live as poor man with lots of money” — that is, being constantly excited by little pleasures. But most of us live as fairly well-off people with lots of money. While not all stuff is bad (books are wonderful, hint, hint!) we do often buy more stuff in an attempt to recapture the joys of little things.
So is there any way to step off the hedonic treadmill? Probably not — which is not all together bad. It would be exhausting to marvel every minute over things like indoor plumbing, furnaces, refrigeration and antibiotics. I do think, however, that it is possible to slow the treadmill. To avoid the craving for constant new stuff, one can build a life that’s not based on stuff. What’s the alternative? Well, experiences, people and ideas sound like worthwhile substitutions. Finding new and beautiful places to run every weekend will not only keep you in shape, it will keep you out of the mall. Meeting a friend for lunch buys more happiness than buying a sweater because it was on sale. Better yet? Treat her to lunch. Most likely, she’ll reciprocate, so you can have your fun twice. Volunteering sets your sights on different goals than what’s hanging in your closet. Photos and memories usually capture the happiness of travel better than a T-shirt from a souvenir shop. Simply by making the acquisition of stuff a less frequent feature of your life, you can make each acquisition more special.
And, of course, you can be mindful about things you did once consider decadent — one reason I’ve written a lot about Ziploc® bags over the last few years. Each of these essays makes me think about why I love them when I pull one out of the cupboard. So I marvel at the brilliance all over again.
You can read more about Laura's 168 Hours book on a previous post here, and visit her blog here. And by all means, check out her new book, All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know About Getting and Spending!