Stuff and nonsense

If you sensed a disturbance in the Force earlier this month, it may have been the lead story in the Aug. 8 business section of The New York Times. The article asked a most unbusinesslike question: Do material objects make you happy? Even more startling, it summarized anecdotal evidence and the latest research to suggest that they don’t, or at least not for long. 

Since the collapse of the mortgage markets and the subsequent worldwide recession brought on by America’s Gordon Gecko class, our popular culture has been exceptionally schizophrenic about materialism. At first there was an initial wave of articles about Americans recalibrating their priorities. This was made somewhat easier by the fact that one out of five of us is unemployed.  

But while businesses ruthlessly chopped their workforces and stockpiled scads of cash, it began to dawn on folks that an economy driven primarily by consumerism and debt may not actually want its citizenry to get all comfy cozy with the new austerity. Americans are saving at significantly higher rates than two years ago. They have seen their 401(k)s tank, and their confidence in the near future is anything but stellar. The Chinese, the Germans and the Australians are doing pretty well for themselves, but Americans are waiting for the second shoe to drop. They are keeping their wallets closed, at least for now, and this is making business nervous. So, more recently, there has been a steady stream of articles subtly encouraging Americans to get back into the consumer game. When it comes to stockpiling cash, what’s good for the goose, apparently, is not so good for the gander. 

But what the Times was reporting is that, at least in some families, the new austerity has become incredibly liberating. Exhibit one: A couple with a two-bedroom apartment, two cars and tons of stuff who decide to downsize their living quarters to 400 square feet and even change their jobs so that they have more time to travel and connect with family. (It would have been more impressive if this family had done this while raising kids, but that is the quibble of someone with two sons in college.) 

A growing body of scientific research seems to be pointing in the same direction. Happiness is not — you may want to sit down for this — associated with material possessions. At least after a point. Poverty does not make one happy, but neither, apparently, does gobs of wealth. What does tend to make people happy is connectedness. The great English novelist E.M. Forster once wrote, “Only connect,” and it seems to be what we sometimes have the hardest time doing. “He who dies with the most toys wins,” said a popular ’80s bumper sticker, but apparently he doesn’t die happy. 

The Times article, of course, doesn’t want this to get out of hand, so it ends up recommending lots of travel, promising that an increase in such leisure spending practically equals the happiness one derives from marriage. Apparently, we just need to become different types of consumers. 

Catholics, of course, might suggest a few alternatives. As Hilaire Belloc wrote: 

Where e’re a Catholic sun doth shine, 

There’s always laughter 

And good red wine. 

At least I’ve always 

Found it so. 

Benedicamus Domino. 

Belloc evokes a Mediterranean Catholicism of friendship and family, incarnational and eucharistic and scaled to the blessings of Our Lord.  

Ultimately, the quest for happiness is one doomed to frustration if pursued as an end. True joy comes with loving and serving and celebrating with others. It isn’t just when we give away stuff, but when we give away our hearts. And it is pretty hard to make a buck off that. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.