Most of us can agree the consumerism of developed countries has gone a little mad. There has to be a better score card for life than the quantity of possessions you buy. And yet, we keep consuming.
This really is a difficult issue because consumption is not necessarily bad. Possessions make our lives easier and often better. There is that imaginary line that is presumably too much but demarcating that line is extremely difficult.
Extreme excess is easy to point out. Automobile industry executives flying in their corporate jets to ask for billion dollar government bailouts after years of mismanagement comes to mind. However, most of us do not make multi-million dollar salaries and have extravagant lifestyles.
How much is too much for the little guy on the street? Even the most ardent environmentalists have to fly sometimes, purchase clothes, drive cars and consume. Is it decadent for a concert musician to own a million dollar violin when that instrument is so integral to their art? Am I a lessor person because I bought the new 17″ MacBookPro when my old computer was still chugging along?
It is easy for backpackers to shun possessions and live a minimalist lifestyle, because it is impossible to do anything else. You can’t carry a leather sofa around the world with you. However, the vast majority of us live more stationary lifestyles, which tends to facilitate the accumulation of things. Lots and lots of things. A little consumption is unavoidable, we just have to be careful not to get too carried away.
Consumption can’t be a rational metric for judging our success on this planet. It is just too debased. So what else is there. Is tracking how many countries you have visited better? Perhaps success can be measured by how much you contribute to charities? That would leave the wealth titans like Bill Gates at the top of the heap by any measure.
Perhaps the more noble minded of us will suggest that we are judged by the company we keep. Our connections to family and friends are really the only path to happiness and a quality life. Perhaps we should evaluate the quality of our lives by how many followers we have on Twitter or how many friends on we keep on Facebook?
What about contribution and leaving the world in a better place? Are people who volunteer better than people that don’t? Maybe the cumulative number of hours spent helping others should be tallied so that history can compare our impact on this tiny planet?
The problem with most measures of personal value is that they are relative. It is not the total that is important, it is how much better you are than your peers. Whether you have a more expensive car or recycle more than me doesn’t make you a better person. So what does make you a better person? Most of us can see the problems of competing to have a better car or bigger house, but what about competing to consume less or contribute more? Maybe competition isn’t so bad after all?
Personally, I feel that the greatest contribution an individual can make regardless of their station in life is to consume less and give more. Of course, I am talking about wealthier people living in advanced nations. Lasting happiness can only come from breaking free of one-up-man-ship, and living our lives in ways that we are comfortable with as individuals. The problem is that I personally find it hard not to compare myself with others. It is not good enough to be personally satisfied, I want to be better than others. What change in thinking is required to give up those attachments?
How do you measure success? I would love to hear your ideas.