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The American Dream: Happiness ‘n Stuff

28 Jul

We live in a society in which we’re judged based on our stuff. Your clothes. The finest jewelry. That extra inch on your big-screen TV, because 51 inches is just inadequate. The sweet ride parked in your garage, all blinged out, from hood ornament to rims. A sprawling house on a palatial estate. A summer cottage in the woods.

Despite our “keeping up with the Joneses” syndrome, studies continue to point out that those with more money and, thus, more possessions are not considerably happier than those living a meek lifestyle. The justification is quite simple: The more fortunate, in their restless quest for more wealth, power, and, well, stuff may often lose sight of that which is most important in this life. They surround themselves with inanimate objects, filling the collective void in their lives that only company, love, and certain intangibles can fill.

Meanwhile, those of us with modest means have little choice but to be thankful for that which we have, being ever mindful of those inner qualities and, as some of those qualities would have it, outward actions that instill happiness. While the wealthy may work hard for their possessions — I’m trying to avoid sweeping generalizations — we feel that our work is extra hard and that we’re more deserving of that which we “earn.”

I am not wealthy. I live humbly, yet not paycheck to paycheck. I understand the value of frugality, taking great pride in finding that bargain buy or clearance-rack purchase. I’m the guy in the mall who whips out his smartphone calculator to estimate sales tax and coupon discounts before taking my items to the register. If I buy something at full price, I often feel guilt and the need to internally rationalize why I did it. Believe me, I’ve had many conversations with myself — out loud, nonetheless — on my way home from an evening of solo shopping, calming myself down from buyer’s remorse.

For me, major purchases like electronics take much longer than the average buyer, putting in the time to research, ask friends, research again, compare prices, research some more, take a few days to think about it, and then buy, but not before staring at my online shopping cart for hours with my mouse hovering over the “Complete Purchase” button.

Much of that has to do with my personality type: indecisive, sometimes worrisome, careful planner, perfectionist, afraid of regret (especially when it comes to making a bad decision, hence my indecision). That much is true. But it also says much about my means of living. When asked if I think I’d be happier wealthy, I could not separate the me from the lifestyle. Perhaps it is because I have always been this way; this is how I grew up, who I am today, and probably how I’ll always be, lest I win the lottery that I never play. I know no other way to live.

I’d like to believe that if I were to suddenly become a rich man, I’d still go bargain hunting, buy on clearance, and research promo codes online before buying. Granted, I’m human, meaning I would also likely spring for a few luxury items that would otherwise be unobtainable, like the nicer car, yet I’d do my damnedest to limit those purchases.

I’d also like to think that, with the money I didn’t spend on luxurious living, I’d invest more wisely, affording for myself a long, happy future (aka retirement). Or I’d donate more to philanthropic causes, giving back because of so many people giving to help me. And I’d certainly pay off my student loans, finally setting free the financial albatross hanging around my neck.

So what does all this have to do with my happiness? Ever since my bankruptcy nearly five years ago, I have struggled to get back on my feet, saving every penny, taking the advice of financial advisers, investing, and living with the realization not to spend beyond my means. This road back to financial independence, while treacherous travels, has been good for my maturity.

At the same time, I’m constantly watching every dollar. On a daily basis, I find myself consumed by financial fears, repeatedly checking my bank account and stock portfolio. Stocks up, good mood. Stocks down, the onslaught of worry. And now that I have purchased a house, those fears will reverberate all the louder in my head.

I’ve become the complete opposite of my former self; whereas before I was a free spender living on credit, now I’ve become the very definition of a tightwad (you can imagine how that has affected a man who harbors the qualities mentioned above — those qualities that make buying something a never-ending research project).

Every day, I’m afraid of slipping back into my financial past. It haunts me. And so I become even more determined to get away from those haunting shadows, hell bent on proving myself. I want to be independent. I want to be successful.

And those goals, some loftier than others, drive me, stress me, hold me captive. Naturally, in that regard, the thought of being rich fills me with envy; it would make life easier. But I come from a blue-collar family of hardworking Midwesterners, farmers, factory workers, butchers. I am proud of my humble upbringing and all the sacrifices — my family’s and my own — that have led to this place and time.

Could I be happier with more? I’m not going to lie: Yes. If I had a family of my own, I would definitively and authoritatively say, “Yes!” to ensure that their needs are taken care of forever.

In an age of shows like Cribs, it’s tough to sit in our living rooms and think that we couldn’t be happier in a Hollywood mansion or on a palm-tree-lined, Miami Beach-front estate. But never at the risk of losing sight of myself or from where I came. And never as a handout. If I had been freely handed everything in life, I would never have matured or developed life skills. I never would have understood the meaning of hard work and sacrifice. It would be all-the-more difficult, although not impossible, to appreciate that which I do have.

Coincidentally, I finished reading Excess Baggage today. In its conclusion, it says:

“’Enough’ is a catchphrase that recollects an old-fashioned virtue — satisfaction. It reminds you that wherever you are, whatever you have lost or accumulated, learned or forgotten, you can consider yourself, at any given moment, enough. ‘Enough’ encourages an inner feeling of peace, an acceptance. It acknowledges that, indeed, there is more out there to have, to be, to own, to achieve, and you are allowed to feel happy and satisfied without having it, being it, owning it, achieving it. Don’t confuse satisfaction with settling. … ‘Enough’ does not mean ‘give up.’ It means ‘savor what you’ve got.’”

I’m blessed beyond words. I knew that all along. It’s hard to believe that there are still countries in which people have to fight for food and walk miles for water. I have the privilege every day to go to a job I love, earn an honest income, be surrounded by family, and enjoy pleasures that some will never. As I look inwardly at my happiness, I need to recall that fact a little more often. I must savor what I’ve got. Come tomorrow when all hell breaks loose, will I? Easier said than done.

So how? People will say to take a few minutes every day to see and appreciate the little things in life: Smell the roses, feel the sun’s warmth, walk barefoot through the grass. I must start living, rather than be handicapped by past mistakes and current fears. I’m not the same as I was five years ago. As I live, I must do so more freely to dispel any and all regrets of not living life to its fullest, without tearing down the stable financial wall I’ve built. There is a balance. My happiness hinges on finding that balance.

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Posted by on July 28, 2013 in Happiness, Lifestyle

 

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