The Poverty of Wealth
Some of the blogs and books I’ve been reading recently have focused my mind on ‘wealth and happiness’. There are certain philosophies that seem to say that if you attain riches, you attain happiness. Certainly our consumerist society, especially in the west – and now creeping east- encourages us to earn more and buy more; we assume this is a route to satisfaction, almost without question, but actually, when you stop and think about it, is it really?
Well, we know that money per se certainly doesn’t make people happy. You only have to look at the lives of those wealth magnets in the public eye to see that: multiple failed relationships, substance misuse, depression, and a whole host of other sorry outcomes from such ‘rich’ lifestyles. Money may not be evil, in fact used in the right way it can achieve lots of good, useful and practical results; it’s more the accumulation of ‘things’, of ‘stuff’ that we don’t need but have an innate desire to amass, which is the root of the problem.
We work longer hours than we ever did and yet we constantly feel like we’re chasing our tails and need to earn more without ever questioning why. There are families who struggle, who don’t earn enough to pay their basic bills, and there’s no doubt that an extra cash injection would make a big difference. The vast majority of us, whilst we might find the current economic climate taxing, actually have enough to live on. We have a roof over our heads, we can heat our homes and put food on the table – all things that a lot of our grandparents, and perhaps even some of our parents, couldn’t take for granted.
In this country poverty is relative to income levels. You can still have Sky TV, a car and an annual holiday and technically live below the poverty line, and that is probably a separate argument. What I’m thinking of here is how much we have, compared to people in other countries, yes, but also compared with what I had in my own childhood, what my parents had. In real terms, it’s not actually all that long ago, and yet there’s been a sea-change in attitude over the last 40 years or so.
My parents saved for a deposit for their first house, and were helped out by their parents. My dad took some extra work, but interestingly, my mum stayed at home, certainly whilst we were young. Most families now have both parents working so that they can pay the bills, including huge bills for childcare. I’m not arguing for or against stay-at-home parents, that again is a whole other issue, but I am trying to demonstrate the changes we’ve seen in a relatively short space of time.
These days we want a nice home in a nice area, decked out in all the latest designer gear. We want a 4×4, foreign holidays, nice clothes, and our kids to have all the ‘benefits’ that we may have done without – toys of course, but often designer clothes and shoes, electric cars or trikes, birthday parties that break the bank, and all the latest technology – and that’s when they’re five!
There’s a lot of recent research that suggests that the ‘I want’ generation is actually no happier, and possibly even a lot unhappier, than generations of children who had less. A cardboard box can be anything your imagination can think of; a trek around the local park with an adult to point out the miracle of trees, flowers and insects can be a major adventure and instil a sense of wonder for life.
There’s such a big disconnect now between us and the planet which supports us that we actually have a name for it: ‘nature deficit disorder’. It’s generally applied to children, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that an adult who gets up, goes to work in a car, comes home, goes to the gym, and goes to bed, can suffer from exactly the same ‘syndrome’ resulting in similar problems. We spend too much time indoors, too much time in front of the TV, and conversely, too little time outdoors engaging with the big wide world of nature, and with our families and our peers.
We may be wealthy compared to the average African, even compared to our parents or grandparents, but we have a paucity of experience. We own plenty of ‘stuff’, which takes our time, and space in our homes as well as our heads, but we don’t have richness of encounter and involvement with the natural world. Where are the adventurers of this generation? The David Attenborough’s and the Benedict Allen’s? If we don’t instil a love of the natural world in our kids, they will remain impoverished, for all the wealth of material things we may provide for them. We will spend decades working to earn more money to buy more ‘stuff’ when finding the time to be with those we love, even if it means actually earning less, could make us a whole lot richer, and more satisfied.
This is a big subject. We’ve been seduced by big commerce and their adverts in subtle and deceptive ways; we’ve been conned by the world of finance, and even by our governments, who all need us to earn more so that we can spend more. The financial bubble has already burst and many people are questioning attitudes to finance and spending out of necessity. Perhaps it’s a good time to re-evaluate our wealth in real terms. We are often time poor and cash rich, whilst wishing the reverse were true. Is there a way you can change that? Do you have to have that bigger house and bigger car, or could you down-size and manage to work less hours? The acquisition of the ‘stuff’ which the adverts say we need for a better lifestyle, is not what makes us feel better or happier, or satisfied. Deep down, or may be not so deep down, we know this, but often feel powerless to address the situation. Take a small step to go against the flow of consumerism – once you see the dividends it will encourage you to take further steps, strengthen your resolve to spend less and live more.
There are lots of people out there who are making steps on this revolutionary journey, and I’ve listed some websites below where you can get some great advice on how to make small changes to get you started. Some people may be able to take big life changing decisions to give everything up and do VSO for a year, or buy a B&B in France, but for most of us the changes will be less dramatic. Take heart – even small changes can have a dramatic impact on our lives, the lives and health of our families, and the life and health of the planet. I would urge you to do a wealth assessment for yourself. You may be wealthy, but you could also be very poor! Take a rain check on your satisfaction levels and make some changes now. You will never wish you had more money or more ‘stuff’ on your deathbed!