Monday, September 13, 2010

The "Ownership Society" Sucks

(Buddha art from fellow dharma practitioner Carole of Zendotstudio. Please check out her blog for more wonderful art and writing.)

I had a conversation with a friend and fellow meditation practitioner yesterday about material possessions - and attachment to them. We both are fairly minimalistic in our actual felt need for stuff, but we also have a few things we're pretty attached to. For me, the laptop I'm writing this on has become pretty important in my life. I felt a lot of concern when it was on the blink a month back, and wondered if I'd have to get a new one. There are a few other things, objects attached to memories, that I'd certainly have a hard time parting with. And some of my books - I'm definitely into books. When I think about most of the things I have some attachment to, it's the lack of replace-ability, or difficulty to replace, that seems most prominent.

A letter or gift from an old friend, family member, or lover. An autographed book by a favorite author. A live, bootlegged recording of a concert. All of these things, once gone, can't come back. And yet, when you consider it more closely, they are merely symbols for what is already gone, already lost in a certain sense. The value to us is in the ability the object has to make us recall, to experience again what we once experienced. But this re-experiencing is itself different, and although it may feel wonderful, or bitter-sweet, it can never be the same as the original.

So, there's something curious about attachments to objects. And I think those of us who live in wealthy nations, and have a lot of stuff, are highly prone to having lots of attachment to many objects. And it's causing a lot of misery, don't you think?

I found this interesting article on the website for Yes! Magazine, a personal favorite of mine. Writer John Robbins takes on issues of measures of wealth, happiness, and poverty amongst others, making comparisons of people from around the world in terms of how they report their general sense of well-being.

He writes:

Of course, the lowest life-satisfaction scores come from the world’s most destitute people. The happiness numbers for homeless people in Calcutta, India, for example, are among the lowest ever recorded. But, according to research by psychologists Robert Biswas-Diener and Ed Diener, when these people have enough money to move off the street and into a slum, their levels of happiness and satisfaction rise and become nearly equivalent to those of a sample of college students from 47 nations.

Psychologist David Lykken, summarizing his extensive studies on the subject, says that “people who go to work in their overalls and on the bus are just as happy, on the average, as those in suits who drive to work in their own Mercedes.” How about the ultra-rich? According to a study by Ed Diener and his colleagues, the Forbes 100 wealthiest Americans are barely happier than the average person. The happiness scores of the richest Americans, in fact, are only slightly higher than those of Masai tribesmen, a semi-nomadic African people who live without electricity or running water.

My friend works with homeless people here in Minnesota. Part of our conversation got into how some of her clients handle ownership, and the impact that has on their sense of well-being. One the one hand, she spoke of a guy who had been in an accident and while he was in the hospital had all of his stuff confiscated by some zealous police officers. When my friend offered to help him get it all back, he said "No. It's no big deal. I can get a new tent and clothes." On the other hand was a "hoarder" who had lost his home because the obsessive collecting had caused too much damage to the place where he had lived. even though he was trying to, he just couldn't quite handle getting rid of things he hadn't needed for years. As homeless folks, people who hoard tend to struggle horribly because they not only have the burden of trying to lug around the actual objects they have, but they also live in constant worry about losing said stuff. And given the circumstances, protection of precious items is pretty damned hard at best.

Obviously, there are probably many differences one could point to between these two guys that would help explain why they handle their situations differently. But one significant factor is the amount of attachment they each have to the objects in their lives.

Commenting on the U.S. as a whole, Robbins writes that

While we’ve been on this multi-decade shopping binge, our rates of depression, obesity, heart attacks, divorces, and suicides have skyrocketed. Antidepressants are now the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. As a nation, we consume two-thirds of the global market for drugs prescribed to combat chronic sadness and hopelessness. One study found that today, the average American child experiences higher levels of anxiety than did the average child under psychiatric care in the 1950s. And yet, when Americans were asked in a survey what single factor they believed would most improve the quality of their lives, the most common answer was “more money.”

More money is probably a very useful thing for someone who is currently homeless, or who is on the edge of being homeless and/or hungry. In fact, it probably would be a significant factor for most in terms of their sense of well-being. However, the same logic seems to be mostly faulty for the rest of us - those who have enough to have their basic needs covered. In fact, the very application of this same logic across the board seems to be making a hell of a lot of us sick and miserable.

The thing is, though, that it's not just about wealth or poverty. People can, and often are, attached to objects that have zero monetary value. The three sentence letter my grandfather wrote me about his pocket watch a few years before he died wouldn't get me a single slice of bread in a trade. I'd rather not lose it, at least for now. It's probably not something that will cause me great misery if it is suddenly gone, however if a building fire took away all such things in my life at the same time, I certainly have enough attachment right now that I'd feel pretty damned miserable.

And maybe that's okay for a short period of time. However, there's a difference between healthy grief and the madness that comes from over-identifying with objects that ultimately can't last forever.

How have you approached or considered the objects in your life?


Was Once said...

I am right now selling stuff slowly, giving away things when appropriate I am inspired by a new friend I met to meditate a year ago, who gave up everything(house, wife, job, etc) after he encountered the big question about life....WHY? when two family members died in the span of a year. He is on the path, with only backpack and in the span of a year of more meditation combined with odd jobs to make food and housing work to just get by...he is happier and more realized than I.
I know a bit with my experience, that what I have is not me. And I feel less attached to stuff, and I surely not buying anymore than absolutely necessary for the past 6 years, knowing I don't want to leave my things to have family members sort through, when are least able to deal at the time of my death.

Algernon said...

Bill McKibben takes this up in Deep Economy (2007). He looks at international statistics over time, and an interesting finding he reports from the research is that money actually buys happiness up to about $10,000 per capita income, and after that the correlation vanishes.

Nathan said...

"I surely not buying anymore than absolutely necessary for the past 6 years, knowing I don't want to leave my things to have family members sort through, when are least able to deal at the time of my death."

This is something a lot of people fail to think about. I appreciate that you are.