Why “Things” Will Never Make Us Happy

Unhappy Woman Shopper

By Roger Reid

The first of the year is the traditional time to set new goals, to identify what’s important in our lives and make plans to accomplish our objectives. For some of us, that means a new job, buying a home, or acquiring the latest model car. Others will focus on pure financial goals, setting a desired net worth, or accumulating a specific amount of cash in the bank, hoping it will give them a sense of freedom.

The next priority is usually some kind of heath goal. Quitting cigarettes and losing weight are the most common.

A fewer number of people will consider the quality of their personal relationships, hoping to develop new ones while wanting to reduce their exposure to negative and toxic people. And an even fewer will think about spiritual goals and what they can do to make themselves feel more satisfied, more directed and happy about their time here.

For most, that’s the priority:

  1. Acquiring new things
  2. Money
  3. Health
  4. Relationships
  5. Spiritual involvements

It’s no surprise that Things are at the top of the list. Our socioeconomic culture is powered by conspicuous consumption. New cars, bigger houses, and wearing designer jewelry are the media-endorsed, socially-sanctioned prescription to show others how prestigious, successful, and accomplished we’ve become. In many ways, things are like a score card, an in-your-face verification of how well we’ve done financially.

So does that mean setting goals is more about feeding our ego than improving our lives? Granted, ego plays a big part in generating the incentive to acquire new things. But there’s another big chunk of our motivation that originates from a different need—the hope that buying something will fill an empty spot in our lives, distract us from the general boredom, or mask that nagging voice that constantly reminds us that something is missing from our daily routine.

As illogical as it seems, we’re often trying to imagine how tangible things will add to our lives in some non-tangible way.

And that’s a problem. Because things can’t make us happy. At least not in the long run.

Mark Manson, author of the bestseller, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counter-intuitive Approach to Living a Good Life makes a strong case against seeking happiness from the acquisition of material possessions:

“Whatever makes us happy today will no longer make us happy tomorrow, because our biology always needs something more. A fixation on happiness inevitably amounts to a never-ending pursuit of “something else”—a new house, a new relationship, another child, another pay raise. And despite all of our sweat and strain, we end up feeling eerily similar to how we started: inadequate.”

Here’s why things can’t make us happy.

  1. Things are not “PURPOSE.” Confusing our purpose, values, and beliefs with our possessions is common in a society dedicated to conspicuous consumption. When our goals are reduced to keeping up with the neighbors, or receiving a twenty percent raise annually, or driving the latest model of automobile, our priorities are focused on the transitory rather than satisfying our core values and beliefs.
  2. Things often come with a price not measured in dollars and sense. How happy can you be if the purchase requires you to take on more debt, including the financial stress and obligation that comes with it? Things must be protected, used, and appreciated, which takes our attention away from other interests and pursuits. And the more a thing is coveted prior to obtaining it, the more we feel an obligation to recognize its importance—by admiring it, using it, or controlling it, which often results in a frustrating sense of duty rather than pleasure.
  3. Most things disappoint us in the long term. The initial rush of excitement we experience when buying or receiving something quickly peaks and then begins to fade. It soon becomes a part of our everyday experience. After acquiring our heart’s desire, we no longer wish for it, dream about it, or look forward to the day we own it, because the cycle of acquisition is complete. After we’ve driven the new sports car for a month, or played with the new tennis racket for a couple of weeks, we’ve experienced all the ways we’d been anticipating it’s use and the pleasure we were sure it would provide. Our senses reach a level of saturated satisfaction. And because we need to fill the suddenly obvious void, we ask the question, NOW WHAT? And then we begin the cycle all over again, searching for the next new thing, anticipating how it will make our lives better, or bring us a sense of fulfillment.
  4. We often pay an “unreasonable” opportunity cost. There are plenty of successful executives who fought their way to the top, then realized the cost of living an unbalanced life far exceeded the payoff. Driven by the trapping of a large income—an estate home, a car for each child on their sixteenth birthday, annual vacations to exotic destinations, and diamond earrings for an otherwise neglected wife—they relegated the priorities of family, friends, personal health and hobbies to the demands of their career, unfortunately, to their ultimate regret.
  5. Things can never take the place of true self-worth. Displayed like trophies, expensive possessions are often presented as proof, as verification of having lived a worthwhile and meaningful life. Unfortunately, a constant pursuit of material possessions can prevent us from exploring the more rewarding aspects of using our minds for creative pursuits, thoughtful awareness, and developing a realistic mindset and perspective about the world and our place within it.

Ready to untangle yourself from the lure of happiness through acquisition? Try these suggestions:

When motivated by the idea of owning something, ask yourself if you really want the actual, physical thing because it will make your life easier, more comfortable, save time, or allow you to become more effective or efficient at what you do, or are you anticipating some sense of emotional satisfaction or relief? Our rationale to acquire something is often based not on what the item will actually do for us, but what we hope it will do.

If the object represents prestige, accomplishment, or fulfillment, it’s a red flag. No matter what the thing is, it’s still just a physical object. It has no power to instill any of those qualities or characteristics. It’s simply a thing, and the reason for its ownership should be – at least in part – to fulfill some practical need. If you’re spending more to satisfy an emotional expectation, you’re most likely wasting your financial resources.

Do the math. Determine the practical value of your next anticipated purchase by measuring its usefulness in comparison to its acquisition expense, its opportunity cost, and the time required for maintenance, preservation, and eventual disposal. How do you feel about it now? Will it provide you with a reasonable rate of return, based on what you must invest—what it will demand from you—to make it your own?

Bottom line, there’s nothing wrong with treating yourself to a few luxuries. For example, people seldom regret the money spent on travel, education, or charitable giving. These are investments in yourself, and often provide opportunities to change the direction of your life as well as impact the lives of others. But the acquisition of things to satisfy an emotional need is feeding a repeating cycle of expectation followed by disappointment. So the next time you ask the question, “What’s missing from my life?” try eliminating the options having to do with physical possessions and you’ll improve your chances of ultimately finding the satisfaction and fulfillment you’re looking for.

“Better to own a few treasures than a house full of junk.” Jim Rohn