As a child growing up in the 70s in another country, wealth was a rare thing. As far as I could tell, most people lived pretty much like we did.
Not that I didn’t long for things but my sense of materialism was tempered by the lack of temptations. Television consisted of one black and white channel- free from advertising. Shopping centres were non-existent. And other kids did not have much more than me, leaving me little to covet.
In most countries and certainly in New Zealand things are very different today. The wealth divide has grown enormously. Advertising messages are constant and all pervasive. Things once deemed luxuries are accessible to all, and often regarded as necessities.
Our social mantra and one we instil in our children, is that they can do anything they put their minds to and achieve the lifestyle they desire. Success is there for the taking. Yet what is success exactly?
In a group discussion with a relatively high earning professional recently, one person relayed a ski holiday he had recently returned from. Through friends of friends he shared the same lodge as some extremely wealthy business people. It struck him that dinner conversations tended to revolve mostly about money, and the lesser millionaires – remarkably rich by average New Zealand standards – were envious of those with more assets.
Status anxiety is our insistence on comparing our lives to others. Something we do almost innately. The term was coined by the philosopher Alain de Botton in his book of the same name. He writes that we are driven to want things merely because others have them. “We may seek a fortune for no greater reason than to secure the respect and attention of people who would otherwise look straight through us.”
Studies have consistently shown the only people who become happier through gaining wealth are the very poor. For everyone else the gain diminishes very quickly.
So, is it ever enough? A famous Talmudic expression asks “Who is a happy man?” and answers “He that is happy with his lot”. Contentment is about making do, appreciating what we do have rather than what we don’t. Yet few New Zealanders are able to say with conviction that they need for nothing else.
We are seeing two opposite trends emerging in New Zealand society. On the one hand a recognition that materialism is not satisfying. That having more belongings doesn’t make us happy. Rather closer relationships and balanced lives do.
On the other hand so many things once deemed luxuries are now regarded as necessities and so much tempts us. And we regard possessions not merely for their utility, but for what they say about us. We choose a car not because of its ability to take us from one place to another, but for so many other reasons to do with image and identity.
Where do you fit in? And have you found balance between contentment and the desire for more?
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