Thank you for your interest in my upcoming new book. The launch is planned around the end of April 2019. Your registration to this specific mailing list will keep you up to date on the developments and it has brought you here to read the draft text of the introduction chapter to my book.
I hope you'll enjoy your reading.
I hope you'll enjoy your reading.
Looking around, we tend to see people doing things that people do: they live, work, go about their business, in short: they are going about enjoying their lives. But are they really? What counts as happiness and joy in these modern times? Is it that sense of security that our life is safe? Is it a feeling of achievement about our work or family? Is it connection with significant others or a sense of usefulness when it comes to playing a role in other people’s lives?
Interestingly, our interaction with others has a lot to do with the things we own and choose to show off to those we meet in all manner of social interactions. That could be making sure that you use grandma’s good china when the family comes around (and is eternally jealous for not inheriting), it might be the fact that you make a point of wearing something different every day at the office, or that brand-new desirable phone (the latest model, or course).
Physical items play an important role in our daily lives, but has this always been the case? Whenever you look back over long periods of time, ownership of things has been associated with being rich or powerful. But then again, there seems to have been a clear separation between those rich and powerful people and the regular folk.
Not all that long ago, acquiring things for your home was a costly affair and most people, except the super-rich, could afford to own only the most basic things that were required for continued survival. Things were brought into our homes through exchange, upcycling – yes: that absolutely was a thing in the olden days, they called it “repairing things”! – and only very occasionally things were actually bought or being given to us.
The majority of items in households were bare necessities: usually comprising things like kitchen utensils and cutlery, maybe a spare set of clothes on top of what you were wearing, a ‘good’ pair of trousers for major events, some sparse decoration (usually of the religious kind), the good book, and – most importantly – the tools of your trade. Very little furniture was needed to store anything and usually the kitchen table and chairs were pretty much the only thing needed besides a (sometimes shared) bed.
Of course this is a fairly grim picture and a good number of people may actually have had more than that, but even a little more is negligible compared to what the average person today is logging around when they move home, and many of us are carrying stuff around on a commute to work that exceeds the value of even our great-grandparents’ personal belonging in their totality.
What has happened in the meantime? Why that change in attitude?
There are a number reasons you could think of: usually what first crops up is simply that we have more disposable income than our great-grandparents did. While that is most certainly the case, that does not really explain why we suddenly developed an urge to spend it all and clutter up our lives with things we didn’t need to own before. The same goes for that other chestnut of a possible explanation: we have more space these days. And again: is there any need for all that space? And even though more space may be desirable, why would we feel the need to fill it with things?
Another attempt at explaining these ideas has to do with the fact that we live in a period of general peacetime, a time when chances are slim that we’ll end up having to pack our belongings and start running for the hills. If it feels like you could lose anything you own in a heartbeat unless you manage to pick it up and run, it doesn’t make sense to own more than you absolutely need, nor to develop any sentimental attachments to your belongings. These days, very few of us have that sense of urgency and would be hard put to answer the classic question “if there is a fire, what would you take with you?” Many of us would have a hard time even figuring out what we really hold dear and what is just icing on the cake.
Looking further afield, and taking our focus off the Western world, we’ll easily find large areas of the planet where people don’t own quite as much as we do. This is generally interpreted as being the result of poverty, of course. However, if we look closely, then those people often have all the physical items they actually need to live in a mode that is NOT considered survival mode but a full and joyful life. The main issue is not the question of owning more things, but providing food, or security, or a sense of improvement in the future. This kind of life is centred around supplying that internal happiness in the first place, and HAVING things to show off to others only comes a slow second in line, if at all.
Thus, what we in the West perceive as mostly an image of days long gone is nothing but the daily life experience in many other parts of the world. Of course, times have changed and so have our attitudes. Some of those changes, however, have been pushed upon us by external forces, and are being pushed on an increasing number of people around the world.
The biggest force that has shifted our perception of things from where we were back then to where we are right now has been and still is the advertising industry. Don’t be mistaken for one moment: advertisement plays a much more important role in all of our lives than you believe. The perfect storm of a growing awareness of how to advertise, combined with an inherent need of every single industry to sell more has been one of the main reasons why we have ended up where we are now.
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