Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Consumerism, happiness and the bigger picture

Hiya dolls.

This is a little deep and wordy, but here I go. I am full of cold and ever-so-nauseous so this may make no sense at all, and I may well delete it shame-faced in the morning.

Ryan Hurst, (who played Opie) in my favourite TV show Sons of Anarchy retweeted something on Twitter yesterday which was such a truth bomb to me. Here is the picture he retweeted.


Immediately, I thought of my own situation, my own love of spending. Buying things cheers me up, but sometimes I don't even look at the things I've bought for weeks afterwards. The very act of spending cheers me up. I might go as far to say that it's a buzz, a turn-on, an addiction. Admittedly I'm an absolute cheapskate, so the sums of money I spend aren't vast, but I still feel out of control. I think that is key.

I've long hypothesised about the reasons why I have this enormous well of sadness within me which requires regular topping up with things I don't really need. I remember writing a post about it on MySpace about 5 years ago. At the time, I was surprised when people commented on it to tell me they felt the same. Their 'solace' or 'crutch' might have been something else other than spending - cigarettes, booze, sex, drugs, gambling - but people told me they felt a similar black hole within themselves.

I have a few theories about my own situation.

1. I was brought up dirt poor. And I mean dirt poor, so poor we sometimes couldn't eat for days. I hardly ever had new things. Almost everything was second hand or worse. As well as being poor, we were a single parent family, which was quite frowned upon in those days. People talk, and my family's situation was known by everyone at school (all of them - primary, junior and senior schools) and it was a massive stigma to have people know you don't have shit and you don't have a dad in your life. As soon as I could legally leave school I did and went into work as soon as possible. I needed money and I needed not to feel broke. I'm not entirely sure if that feeling has ever left me. I think I subconsciously surround myself with things to try to prove to myself I'm no longer poor.

2. I left home aged 19. I'm not going to bore you with my entire childhood/teenage woes, but essentially I had to get out of my home because I was at risk of violence - both sexual and physical - at the hands of my mother's evil alcoholic boyfriend. Although I moved away with my dad and brother to start a new life, they both went back to our home town after a couple of years and I stayed behind. My entire family is 90 minutes drive away. Of course, it could be a lot worse (with increased distance) but I've never really had a family there when I've needed them because of my youthful desire to escape the life that had thus far blighted me. My escape from shit times ultimately came back to bite me on the arse as I've pretty much had to get by on my jack, aside from periodic visits back home. I'm sure this sense of isolation has a lot to do with my constant need to 'top up' my happiness bank with a seemingly never-ending supply of new things.

3. I've lost two babies. My spending habit has definitely increased since my last ectopic pregnancy. I long to be a mum and I think a certain amount of my emptiness stems from that.

Let me go off topic for a bit to explain a bit more of where I'm coming from in the purchases-don't-always-make-us-happy line of thought. 

Quite a few things have been clarified for me since I've been ill. Sometimes all it takes is someone else's viewpoint on things to start off a whole new thought process. About the time I had to give up work due to ill health (2008) I wrote a post on Facebook saying how useless I felt not being able to work, for being a burden on J, for ruining the dream of us getting a mortgage, etc. (You can see how much I'd bought into the consumer 'dream' - feeling deflated at not being able to saddle myself with 25-30 years of debt!) A guy from America (a friend of a friend I got to know from our mutual love of writing) commented on my Facebook status that day and what he said resonated with me. He said something along these lines: we all work (men and women, regardless of if we have kids) to pay for gadgets, foreign holidays and God knows what else so we don't feel inferior to other people. As well as working hard for the things we need - food, shelter, clothes etc, we work hard for things we don't actually need to be happy. If we have kids we often let other people bring them up in daycare so we can get back to the slog and not only are we often miserable because of this cycle, but our kids can suffer for it in lack of time spent with their parent(s.) He said his wife stays home to look after the kids by mutual agreement, he works, they make do with what they've got and more importantly, they're happy with what they've got. It was a conscious choice to make less money collectively and feel richer for it. Obviously it could equally go the other way with the man staying home, the point is that some things are more important than money. Yes, I said that! He said I shouldn't HAVE to work unless we really need the money, much less beat myself up for being a 'failure' for succumbing to illness, and that we're conditioned to feel our only worth is through working ourselves half to death to buy things we don't really need.

In all the years of my life up to that point I had never considered that there was a choice other than slog fuelled by need + consumerism. It had never occurred to me that even a well person could choose to do less work if they chose, and that was entirely OK, and hell - might even be beneficial to their mental and physical well-being. I had never thought in my entire working life that there was an alternative. I lived to work, I didn't work to live. I don't even know where this overbearing work ethic came from, I just had it. It came to me as easy as breathing. That is the culture in this country. You work all the while you can, and when you can't, you're considered washed up. Sucks put like that, doesn't it?!

Some time after that Facebook comment opened my eyes I read an article about young Dutch women, many of whom choose to work part time in order to have a better quality of life, to be able to bring up children, do housework, read, garden, do volunteer work, or chill on the sofa all day if they so desire. A commenter on the article I've just linked sums it all up by saying "We design our financial needs according to how we want to live our lives." In other words, they decide how much money they need to get by on, then they do as much or as little work they need to achieve that, realising that some things are more important than money. They could work more and have more but they choose not to. Wow. Another group of people who find there are greater riches than money in life. That was another eye opener for me.

I think at the heart of my constant want for sparkly things, and a lot of the problems we face in society as a whole are brought about by us losing sight of what's really important in the grand scheme of things: family, love, more time to be with friends and loved ones, more time to pursue other interests, more time to work on ourselves as people and an increased level of happiness caused by all those things (and more besides). Surely the essential thing at the heart of a life enjoyed is happiness? We all deserve to be happy. Money or things are not the keys to happiness in themselves. In fact our search for them can be directly the cause of our unhappiness if we lose sight of the bigger picture. As the picture at the top of the post says in so many words, no end of things you don't need will ever be enough. Things cannot sate you, not for long, which is why I'm always looking for my next fix. Experiences sate you, your family and friends sate you, and focusing on being a good person makes you feel whole. Your 60" TV can't give you a hug when you feel down, no more than my enormous collection of make up can. And yet I still yearn....

I honestly believe the key to achieving happiness - or a modicum of it - is the ability to throw off the shackles of what we 'should' be doing, what the ad agencies tell us we all need to buy and of measuring success by money and possessions. We need to stop comparing. We need to connect to ourselves and find out what is really important to us. This can be hard to do when social conditioning screams BORN! WORK! DIE! everywhere we turn.

The honest truth is that in the English-speaking world, anything other than total self-annihilation from hard work is frowned upon. It's work for the sake of work and nothing else in many cases, as if the world will implode if you have a Friday afternoon off. I know, I burned out in spectacular fashion after 17 years of hard slog (in the worst jobs imaginable) because I didn't know any other way. Do I have any of the things I worked so hard to buy for all those years? No, only ill health and life experience.

So what now?

I'm a blogger after all, and blogging is almost always about the purchase of sparkly new things, especially beauty/fashion blogging. I'll probably still be showing you things I've bought to cheer myself up, which essentially makes me a hypocrite, I know....but I'm a mindful hyprocrite who will be doing some delving into myself to try to 'heal' myself in other ways. I don't know the answers yet, and don't know if I ever will, but I'm mindful of searching for them.

I am mindful of always wanting. If I spend less time wanting things and I'm sure I'll be happier. In reading blogs, especially beauty and fashion blogs, it's so easy to crave what someone else has. I want to switch the emphasis in my thoughts over to be being glad for what I've already got - a lovely husband, a loving (if barmy) family, a roof over my head, food in the cupboards and clothes on my bones.

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with working like a maniac if you really want that 60" TV and that holiday to The Maldives (or wherever/whatever else) if it makes you really, genuinely happy. Working hard for the things you love is an admirable quality. Treating yourself to nice things and wanting nice things isn't bad in itself. We all deserve treats. I can only talk from my own viewpoint, which is from the position of constantly buying little things to supplement my happiness and feeling out of control because of it. This is why I feel I need to work on myself.

What are your thoughts? Am I talking a load of horse shit or do I have a point? 

Over to you.

Thanks for reading.