The Low Price of Happiness

John Latta
Executive Editor
[email protected]

I bought a T-shirt some years back that said “He who dies with the most toys wins.” It was a caustic little comment on rampant consumerism, a pointed jab at the hordes of Americans who assess their own lives on the basis of how much good stuff they buy. But it seems it’s not accurate.

It also seems few people are influenced by this inaccuracy. Consumerism is booming worldwide, and private consumption expenditures – the amount spent on goods and services by households – have increased fourfold since 1960 according to a new report by Worldwatch. The report says around 1.7 billion people worldwide – more than a quarter of humanity – have “entered the consumer class, adopting the diets, transportation systems and lifestyles” that were limited to the rich nations during most of last century.

In America these days, says Washington D.C.-based Worldwatch, there are more private vehicles on the road than people licensed to drive them. The average size of fridges in U.S.

households increased by 10 percent between 1972 and 2001, and the number per house rose, too. New houses built in America in 2000 were 38 percent bigger than new houses built in 1975, despite the fact that fewer people live in an American house today.

And yet, says Worldwatch, today only about one third of Americans report being “very happy” with their lives. That’s the same number who said they were very happy back in 1957. And back in 1957 we were only half as wealthy as we are today.

Worldwatch concludes, in a re-phrasing of my old T-shirt, that, “Consumption among the world’s wealthy elites, and increasingly among the middle class, has in recent decades gone beyond satiating needs or fulfilling dreams to become an end in its own right.”

All these toys come with a hefty price tag above and beyond their dollar cost – more obesity, personal debt, stress, chronic time shortages, pollution, health problems and unhappiness for starters. And tiredness. Consider this: Americans are some of the most overworked people in the industrial world, working nine more weeks a year that the average European.

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We know, and Worldwatch admits, that rising consumption helps with basic needs and jobs and gives economies a boost. It also needs truckers to deliver all the goods. But since the planet is having trouble handling all this consumerism – the world’s environment and the world’s poor are having a harder and harder time – surely we can spend some more time on real happiness and less on trying to buy it by gathering toys, eating something more expensive than the guy down the street or having more cylinders under the hood than the guy in the next cubicle.

If most of our big consumers are unhappy could it be that the key to happiness is not consumerism at all? Sure sounds like it.

You don’t make fortunes, but many of you are happy, well satisfied with your lives. You get it. Many have found that the key to happiness is in what you do and why and how you do it, who you do it with and who you do it for. I guess I’m preaching to the choir here. Most of you are grinning and saying, right, like we’ll ever have to worry about fuelling the yacht in Palm Beach. But maybe this report will make it clear that striving to buy consumer toys is not as important to happiness as striving for happiness, because clearly they are not the same thing.

So take a little time to realize your spouse and children, your driving record, your professionalism, your friends and the fact that you do something of real value for a lot of people are worth more than maybe you thought they were.

All this doesn’t mean that trucking automatically holds the keys to happiness. But it does mean that those keys are somewhere in your life and not in the fact that you have more toys than the guy in the tractor next to you. So smile every time a Lexus SUV rolls by. Odds are the driver is a rich but unhappy consumer.