Stepping off the hedonic treadmill? We’ll see.

New York magazine recently had a thought-provoking cover story with the teaser headline “New York Without Money.” Its headline asks us to consider: No money changes everything, from murder rates to museum attendance, from career choices to what you eat for dinner. And not all of it for the worse.

Writer Jennifer Senior shares a number observations about the supposed end of the material culture, including this:

The reemerging value of material restraint may be yet another silver lining to this downturn. As most economists and psychologists can tell you, the steady acquisition of gewgaws and appurtenances doesn’t make us happier once our basic needs are met. Some will go so far as to say that material acquisitions make us less happy. Schwartz puts it this way: “During the boom, people were by and large chasing the wrong stuff, because they were chasing stuff.” Psychologists like him have a term for our misplaced and unending hunger for more and more stuff: the hedonic treadmill.

New York, the land of the 24-hour gym, is the world capital of hedonic treadmills. The opportunity to covet new stuff presents itself in every shop window, on every street corner, on every wall in every window we glimpse as we’re wandering along Museum Mile. In The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz describes with vivid persuasiveness the problems that visit those of us who seek the best of everything, or “maximizers”: second-guessing, susceptibility to disappointment, an inability to savor. In study after study, they’re far more miserable than “satisficers,” or those who are willing to make do. “And my suspicion,” says Schwartz, “is that New York, because it offers so many consumer options, creates maximizers.”

Since the real estate market tanked, unemployment soared and the banks and the auto companies begged the federal government for bailouts, I’ve heard all kinds of criticism of the overspent American.  It’s so disgusting what those bankers got paid. It’s ridiculous that people got mortgages they couldn’t afford and that banks approved them. It’s appaling that people got themselves so far into debt.

But we need to take ownership for our culture role in creating the bubble that eventually burst. We held up conspicuous consumption as admirable. We made Paris Hilton a pop culture role model — she who became famous for being the filthy rich amateur porn star — and we became obsessed with all manner of celebrities, from knowing more about Brad dumping Jen for Angelina that we might about our family and friends to more of us voting for American Idol than do in the presidential election.

“More” became our social battle cry. It appears it was unsustainable as people spent more than they made and eventually that inside-out math had to reconcile itself. Today’s recession is a direct consequence of the insatiable greed of more.

A story in the NY Times a few weeks ago explored how we’d become a society that was always aspiring to a bigger, newer house, often reaching far beyond what we needed because we’d all gotten caught up in the desire to look ever more successful. With construction loans and mortgages harder to get, and many people losing their homes to foreclosure, the article proposed that maybe keeping your current home could feel worthy of celebration. Staying is the new up. Maybe we can put that energy into saving for retirement and making time for loved ones?

After the dot-com bust of the early 2000s, when Alan Greenspan warned us of the “irrational exuberance” of sock puppets selling pet food without a business model and he was right, we seemed to transfer our get-rich-quick hopes to real estate. Housing was the new technology IPO.

Will this recession cool our pursuit of money for nothing? Or will we hyperinflate something else next — green technology, international currency, art?

Some great resources for regaining control of your finances:

  • The Overspent American — why do you spend more than you should? This book is part practical tips, part therapy session
  • Your Money or Your Life — a great book, plus check out recommended reading for more more resources
  • Use Less Stuff — a Michigan-based newsletter that encourages breaking the consumer habit

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2 replies

  1. Nice post, Colleen. I just read about “the hedonic treadmill” in the book “The Geography of Bliss” by Eric Weiner.


  1. Will the recession reset our priorities? Will it reset yours? « Newvine Growing — exploring evolution, revolution and living life intentionally

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