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The Pursuit of Happiness as Materialism, or, the Bottomless Pit of Desire

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Banjo, originally uploaded by Georgie Sharp.

materialism: [muh-teer-ee-uh-liz-uhm]
The philosophical theory that regards matter and its motions as constituting the universe, and all phenomena, including those of mind, as due to material agencies.

“To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.”
~Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness

Was thinking to myself this morning that I’d like a banjo. I’ve been thinking of it for a while, but a conversation this weekend between myself and friend renewed my desire to possess a badass, bluegrass five string Appalacian deluxe banjo. I’ve wanted to play the banjo for a few years. If I could afford it, I’d buy a new one and then I’d take lessons and practice a little every day.

But a banjo is just one of the many things that are on my “want, but cannot afford” list. My rampant desire for new and shiny objects is seemingly unending. And I hate it, but it is hard to control. It seems as if there’s a queue of items that, once purchased, get taken off the queue, only to be replaced instantly by something else I have some need of or want of in my life.

Lately it’s books and a banjo and some new running shoes. And a few things for my soon-to-be-new room in a new house. Stuff I don’t need, like candle holders and picture frames and wine glass sets. And I know it will never be enough, because once I have those things, then it will be cook books and camping gear and earrings. And on, and on.

Sometimes I think that this never-ending need is a foul byproduct of evolution: that us humans are constantly trying to better adapt to our surroundings by improving them in some way or another. Perhaps this materialism thing runs so deep within my DNA that I’ll never be able to fully extract it. If I’m lucky, I’ll only be able to repress it.

And what am I trying to make better in my life with a shopping spree? Is there somewhere I see myself, distant in the future, with everything that will make my life streamlined and easy? Plenty of books on the shelf and albums in the credenza that prove just how wise and cultured I have become?

Fact is, the more I move, the more I get rid of stuff. Besides some stuff stored in my parent’s garage, I’ve pared down my possessions to pretty much the bare minimum I can have (except toys and books, I still have more than minimum of those). Each time I move, as I pack each item, I evaluate; do I really need this? The answer is always no, but sometimes it gets placed into the moving van anyhow. (Getting rid of stuff really fights my pack-rat habit, which I am convinced is another byproduct of evolution; to collect and to store for future use.)

I remember when I was 12, my parents had a garage sale. I really wanted a CD player. That year was when they first came out, and were super-expensive, at least for a 12 year old whose allowance was $5 a week. I wanted a CD player and a complete stereo system that played casette tapes as well. I knew that it would cost about $200, which, at the age of 12, might as well have been a million.

In a feeble attempt to raise enough money to get the CD player, I decided to sell some of my old toys. Mom helped me sort them out, and really, I ended up getting rid of quite a few of them. I was in such desperate need of the CD player, that I was willing to sell items that had been treasures to me just the week before. Probably stuff like Disney toys and Troll dolls and Little Golden Books and a whole slew of childhood memories were placed on the table for 25 cents to $2.50 apiece; I never thought it would amount to much. But, over the course of the next two days, a miracle occured. People were buying my toys left and right, I was selling way more stuff than even my parents!

At the end of the second day, with just a few ugly toys remaining, we tallied up the sales and it turned out that I had made about $150.00, which was amazing. Coupled with what little money I had saved from babysitting and allowance, plus a few dollars my parents threw in out of generosity, I was able to buy a Magnavox CD Stereo system for $179.00 + tax at Circuit City. It was truly a grand day. Of course, I also had to buy a CD to go in it, so I got Off the Deep End by Weird Al Yankovic.

I remember the smell of the CD player, and the smell of the silk screened CD as I pulled them out of their wrappers and placed them in my room. It was such a great feeling, that CD player. It was freedom and growth and accomplishment. Like a frikken’ right of passage or something. That CD player became my new pet. I loved that thing and sat by it and cooed over it obsessively for the next 12 years, until it was barely playing anymore. It survived a few moves with me, too, to Illinois and back to Oklahoma during college.

When I finally bought a new stereo, because I had left my old Magnavox in Tulsa when I moved to Boston, around October of 2005,something about the new one didn’t feel quite right. It wasn’t the same. But it’s okay. It just wasn’t my first love, it wasn’t the greatest thing I had ever bought for myself at 12 years old. But, I digress….

The point I was trying to make is that I sacrificed years and years of childhood toys in the blink of an eye, stuff that I would have still played with some over the next few years, in favor of something big and new and way better. And you know what? I never missed any of those toys I got rid of, ever, (with the exception of a set of Tinker Toys, which I got later from a thrift shop, but it just wasn’t the same). I never even remembered what I sold, really. Small details of individual items have been lost. In fact, the details of the items were gone as soon as they left our garage.

Does that mean, if I were to get rid of everything I own now, even if I didn’t buy a new CD player, would I miss them? Would there be things I truly regretted not having? Or, more importantly, as soon as I acquire these things I so desperately want, do they immediately become part of the pile that will be forgotten as soon as they’re placed on the quarter table in the next garage sale?

I don’t like to think about it too much. Don’t like to think about how my desire to have new things is just a stepping stone to another plane where I want more things. It’s a never-ending, expanding cycle. When I see books I want to read or dishes I want to have or vinyl collector toys to place on my shelves, I just simply want them. I want them! I can’t help it. And it’s sad.

But it’s like being hungry or lonely or bored; you want a solution to help make you feel better. When you’re materialistic, trying to appreciate what you already have will only get you so far. I am happy that I have a nice car and food to eat and a place to live, but now I’m standing on the shoulders of those acquistions, and I can see above the clouds. And you know what I see up there? I see that Heaven has cool toys.

Doesn’t Buddhism teach us that the root of all pain and suffering is desire? That if we could just let go of everything we want, then we’d be whole and happy? I don’t know about that. I mean, perhaps if I was a vegetarian and into yoga and had a successful job and no worries, then maybe I could subscribe to that. But the truth is, I’m struggling to a plateau in my life, and to make it there, I need stuff.

I like the Bertrand Russell quote above; it relieves me a little from my guilt of wanting stuff all the time, because happiness through desire is so much easier than happiness through giving up everything you own, as Eastern religion teaches. I mean, if Bertrand’s right, then maybe I’m only wanting things to keep me afloat in happiness?

I still want a banjo. Wouldn’t I be cool if I could play the banjo? You would love me so much more, right?


Real happiness is cheap enough, yet how dearly we pay for its counterfeit.
~Hosea Ballou
Unhappiness is not knowing what we want and killing ourselves to get it.

~Don Herold


Written by pocheco

May 9, 2007 at 3:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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