June 6, 2014 5:11 pm

The Shrink & The Sage: Is better off really better?

‘We should aim to enjoy things in the genuine understanding that they will not last for ever or give meaning to our life’

The Shrink

It’s a well-known fact that material possessions don’t ultimately make us happy.

There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, it is things such as connection with people and meaningful activity that make a big difference to our well-being. Additionally, there are various mechanisms that underpin the fleeting nature of the thrill that comes from getting the stuff we crave.

Illustration by Laura Carlin of a woman and a girl shopping©Laura Carlin

One is that the acquisition of material goods is often quickly followed by anxiety about losing or damaging them. Think of the first scratch on a new car. Another is what’s known as hedonic adaptation – the fact that we simply get used to things and stop noticing their beneficial impact.

That’s all true. And yet, I’ve come to think that the issue is slightly more nuanced. There seem to be certain things that continue to make a little bit of difference to daily life for a long time. In my case, the prime example is my iPhone, which never ceases to amaze me. I don’t live in fear of losing or damaging it, nor have I stopped noticing its benefits.

One distinction that can be made is whether the item is functional and something we really use, rather than just own. An expensive watch, for instance, wouldn’t in itself necessarily make the same kind of difference. You only really get a thrill when it’s new.

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The Shrink & The Sage

Another important point is whether we manage to keep material goods in perspective and avoid giving them more value than they deserve. Apart from the fact that they can often be replaced, we should aim to enjoy things in the genuine understanding that they will not last for ever or give meaning to our life. If we do this, we may be able to avert excessive fear of losing them.

It would be completely wrong to let our well-being hang on an iPhone, or to think that it could bring about a deep existential transformation. But there’s nothing wrong with noticing and appreciating what it can do for us, practically and aesthetically.

The Sage

“Laughing always turns to crying” – or so my uncle used to say. He may not have known that his homespun wisdom had a classical pedigree. Plato thought that we will naturally return to a kind of neutral state. So if we feel pleasure, we will inevitably feel a corresponding pain as we regain equilibrium; and if we feel pain, we will feel pleasure when we are restored to normality.

Some experiences fit this description but, in general, levels of pain and pleasure are not regulated by immutable, mechanical laws, like the conservation of energy. That also means that if something makes you happy, more of it won’t necessarily make you even happier. Worse, as you get used to the things that make you feel good, they may lose their power to do so.

One popular folk theory to explain this, often dignified by references to Taoism, is that the yin of happiness requires the yang of misery. “He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness,” as Alexandre Dumas put it. From this principle many draw the same conclusion he did – that happiness and misery have a measure of relativity: “There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another.”

There is some truth in this, but good and bad cannot be defined purely relative to expectation and experience. Many things or states of affairs really are better or worse than others. Poverty, for example, is terrible, even when people around you are even poorer.

Nothing has the power of the first time, so as we get used to good things, it is inevitable that many will have less impact. But familiarity need not make us lose sight of their real value. Remembering how lucky you are to eat well every day and how easily things could be different, for instance, can lead to more, not less, satisfaction with life. The way to appreciate improvements in life is never to allow ourselves to get so used to them that they are no longer noticed.

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See Tim Harford on happiness. The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrinkandsage@shrinkandsage.com

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