After the stock markets crashed, we believed we had a chance for a new beginning, a rethink of our wasteful lifestyles. But, with all our talk of silver linings, perhaps we were secretly thinking about the very rich and their heedlessly wasteful ways.
With the new austerity upon us, and more cutbacks and redundancies on their way, it’s our turn for a rethink. We are going to have to be content with less. This is not necessarily a contradiction in terms. Research has shown us our consumption is not making us feel good. The more stuff we buy, the more we clutter up our lives with possessions, and the less we seem to be satisfied. Acquiring stuff just seems to make us want more. Keeping the diary full of work and social appointments, we come to dread an empty day. We’re chasing too many goals, living under what John Naish, in his book Enough, describes as ‘today’s get-more, be-more pressure’.
Between home and work, we are constantly busy; thanks to technological advances, we’re never out of touch. The gadgets that were meant to make our lives easier have ended up doing the opposite. Professor Susan Greenfield admitted in a recent interview that she never turns off her BlackBerry: ‘Modern communications have given us a voracious appetite for instant feed-back that we are loved and important, and I like to feel loved and important.’
If we want to simplify our lives, before throwing away the laptop and the credit cards, we have to address the compulsions that fuel our need for stuff, and busyness, and noise. If we spent our childhood not getting our needs met, crippled by anxiety or trying to deal with the absence of a loved one, we will always have subconscious longings that drive us to work too hard and consume too much. ‘People who can’t stop, who never delegate or slow down for a moment, only feel alive if they are busy,’ says clinical psychologist Luce Janin-Devillars. ‘As children, they were constantly pushed to achieve more, with no time for dreaming, boredom or just mucking around. As they grew up they internalised their parents’ expectations. They created an ideal image of themselves based on performance and success. Their personalities are constructed around fear of emptiness, which they must cover with outward signs of busyness and material success.’
‘Messages get transmitted to us in childhood, and money is a powerful issue,’ says Karen Pine, professor of developmental psychology and co-author of Sheconomics. ‘Parents talk to their children about impending poverty, saying things such as “Don’t you know what that costs?” and “We could lose it all tomorrow”. The children grow up with a sense that they have to accumulate. If their parents are acquisitive, especially if they have a bad relationship, the children grow up believing that if they can only have that new kitchen or that holiday home, everything will be OK. But, of course, it’s not OK, because it’s not about the stuff. ‘Money activates reward pathways in the brain, just like food, or alcohol… I call it compensatory consumption; that is, using money to compensate for the lack of fulfilment. We need to regulate our emotions, but if we’re shopping, we’re not dealing with what we feel. Buying something gives us a temporary release, but it soon dissipates.’
Research has shown that if you can’t change your purchase, you tend to be more satisfied with it. We’ve got into the habit of buying a load of stuff we don’t really want and returning almost all of it. Shopping has become the endless pursuit of some elusive sense of fulfilment. In his book On Balance, Adam Phillips comments on the ‘extreme pressure we are under these days, and that we put our children under, to be happy’. This pressure contributes to our compulsion to be more and have more, to bolster our self-image with stuff, and to be constantly in touch with people in order to feel ‘loved and important’.
‘We have developed a false sense of entitlement, which makes us feel competitive with our friends and with our neighbours,’ says Pine. ‘We feel envy and resentment, and our spending is a response to that.’ The idea of a perfect life to which we’re entitled, and which involves vast numbers of options, makes us less free and more stressed, according to Professor Renata Salecl, sociologist, philosopher and author of The Tyranny of Choice. ‘Women in their early thirties are coming to analysis with a list of things they have achieved: they’ve got the grades, the degree, the job, the house… and they feel totally empty,’ she says. ‘It’s a striking phenomenon. We are used to seeing people who are dissatisfied, but dissatisfaction can be an incentive: it can spur you on to write the book or whatever it is you want to achieve. But this emptiness being described by psychoanalysts is different. Instead of a quest, there’s a feeling of inner deadness. ‘What’s behind it is a feeling of entitlement: “I’ve got all this, I should be happy.” I think it’s very damaging, and people judge their lives harshly, feeling their life project has become a failure.’
So, how do we manage this sense of obligation to have a perfect life, and the compulsive behaviour that goes with it? ‘To simplify our life,’ says Dominique Loreau, author of The Art Of Simplicity, ‘we have to think about our needs and get rid of the rest. That means abandoning part of yourself – material possessions, opinions or ideas – and not being afraid of the unknown, the future, boredom, encountering yourself. Simplicity forces us to view our life in philosophical, even spiritual, terms. We have to understand our own insignificance, that we could die at any moment, and we should live every day with that fact in mind.’
Having a good clear-out, while pleasing, is not going to be the whole answer. Salecl believes that the movements dedicated to simplifying your life are unhelpful and over-prescriptive. ‘If we focus on clearing out our homes,’ she says, ‘we just spend more money on storage. We tend to organise our possessions in response to a sense of inner disarray, but it doesn’t necessarily help.’ She counsels that we need to watch out that austerity chic does not simply replace over-consumption as another attempt at controlling our environment and our desires. ‘There’s always someone telling you to be better organised, but it’s yourself you need to work on,’ says Salecl. ‘Obsession with order is a painful symptom: it creates the feeling of guilt. Creative chaos is good.’
Renouncing our claim on the trappings of an apparently successful life (ever more stuff, the latest techno toys, fast cars, faster friends) doesn’t mean we have to aim for a sort of Buddhist self-denial. Making choices and finding limits are key to our understanding of what we really need. ‘I remember with nostalgia growing up in the Soviet bloc, having to wait almost a year for my first pair of jeans,’ Salecl recalls. ‘There was never anything so exciting. We need limits. Children, especially, need limits. When parents throw everything at their children to try to please them, the child may suffer an anorexia of desire. We need to allow children to deal with the fact that choices involve a loss.’
As a first step to streamlining our lives, we can try to figure out what it is that is overwhelming us. We need to think about areas in our lives in which we could practise letting go: let busy people rush past us, turn off the email or spend a whole day without seeing anyone. We can try to find a time to log off. Our constant busyness is a childlike appeal for love and attention that can be addressed, says Janin-Devillars. We need to let go of that ideal, perfect version of our life. Whatever our shortcomings or failings, they are part of us, and don’t need to be drowned out or buried under piles of qualifications, acquisitions or the constant chatter of the blogosphere.