Coded gray.

Wednesday 1 August 2007

Screnshot anime Lucky Star

Pic of the day: The books which Konata proudly present are "tankubon", collections of manga (mostly black and white comics). Clearly she thinks, like I did for a while, that each new tankubon will make her a little more happy. But is that really so? And if so, how much?

Selective consumption

One of the things that keep me happy is that I rarely buy things I don't want.

You'd think that would be obvious, but I don't think so. For reasons I cannot possibly fully describe here, it seems most people have a rather weak identity. They are easily influenced by advertising, and they willingly expose themselves to it. Where is their vaunted self-esteem when they could have needed it? Rather than listening to their own heart, they listen to the puppet masters of advertising, who create needs. Or rather, relocate needs to a false object.

Have you ever really looked at movie advertising or TV advertising? I know I have, but from the privileged position of not seeing it every day. Looking at it with fresh eyes, some of it is pretty gross. They take personal and social needs, like the need to feel accepted, and transfer them to fairly random objects like shampoo and chewing gum. Now, you can only have so much shampoo and chewing gum in your life if you are sane. But there are other things, like cars, that could swallow your income whole.

I know full well that not all people can do without a car the way I do. Some need it in their work; some need it for their family. But fewer than you might think, and there are degrees of car. I sometimes see people who "need" to have a good car because they work far from home. But if they had not needed so much money to pay for the good car, they could have taken a job closer to home that paid a bit less. I hope they enjoy their time in the car, for the time is still gone, no matter how nice the car; and they never get those hours back. (In all fairness, a car can be a good place to spend time, with beautiful music and good audio books. Ours is a fantastic time to be alive in.) Spending a substantial part of your income on a car is not a sin or a crime, but my point is that you must choose it consciously. It is a big part of your life and you can't just do it because everyone does it or because of the exciting ads.


A problem is the difference between expectation and satisfaction. When you plan a purchase, whether it is an object or a service (vacations come to mind), you get expectations. These can roughly be sorted in two types: Need and joy. On one hand, you expect your purchase to fulfill a need or want which fits its nature. If you are thirsty, you don't buy salty chips. If you are cold, you don't buy an ice cream or a cold drink to remedy that problem. No, the various goods and services each satisfy a need, or a more complex set of needs. If it is an everyday product or something you have studied in great detail, you probably know how well it will satisfy your need. What you don't know is the "joy of purchase".

Due to the way our brain works, there is a surge of feeling good when a need is satisfied. If you are thirsty, you can easily feel this when drinking, for instance. Once you are no longer thirsty, you don't get the same surge. It fades. This same way, the joy of most new acquisitions fade, even when they continue to satisfy the need they were bought for. You don't look at your fridge each morning and think: 'Joy! I can get cold fresh milk from this thing, which I otherwise would not have. I'm so lucky to have a fridge!' Even I don't do that most days, and I literally grew up without a fridge. (We stored our milk in metal containers in an underground well, though. Not as convenient but amazingly chilly.) The fresh joy of a purchase fades quickly. But when we look forward to buying something, the fresh joy is a big part of our motivation.

You could of course do what I occasionally did, keep the advertising material and go back and look at it later. 'Wow! I already have this amazing thing!' But you can only do this so much. It is kind of like playing your old CDs again. Sometimes it works, but not if you do it too often, and not with all things. Some purchases simply were not all we expected of them. That's life. We are not gods that our judgment is without error in all things.

Anyway, expectation builds over time with large purchases, but the satisfaction fades quickly. (It is the same with winning the lottery, by the way. You may be deliriously ecstatic, but only for days at best, and then you gradually revert to your normal level. After a year or less you are back to normal. This is a mainstay of happiness science, a fairly new branch of psychology.) Incidentally, this does not only hold true for literal purchase which you pay with money, but also for life events. Getting married may cause a permanent change in your level of happiness, but it is far smaller than the initial surge (in those cultures where there is a clear distinction between marriage and not-marriage, which there is not here in Scandinavia). Disturbingly, having children causes no increase in happiness. When asked to indicate their happiness on a scale or describe it, the same people feel the same as before, after they have had children for a while.


Now we know most of what we need to know. Large purchases cause great expectation, but do not cause long-lasting joy, unless they have random positive effects over time. Things that have a constant positive effect over time are forgotten until they malfunction and bring no joy after the first heady rush. Small everyday purchases should be varied and tailored to actual needs or wants, if you intend to maximize your joy from purchases.

Overall, though, almost all people expect too much from their shopping. And they don't even do so consciously, but just feel an undercurrent of dissatisfaction, that they don't get what they expect (and think they deserve) from life.

I have seen numerous families that break the usual pattern. Families where the parents work less, buy less and spend more time with their children. Overall they were happier and experienced more joy in their everyday life. To be honest, those I saw were Christians and naturally credited their religion. And rightly so, in so far as it was their religion that moved them to act in their own best interest. (And the best interest of the children not least.) But I have read about secular families making the same choices, and I am not surprised that they too experienced more joy in their lives.

This is certainly not to say that no one should work more than they need to keep hunger and frost away. In many cases, a job can be a form of self-expression, a contribution to something larger than ourselves, or a source of self-worth. And some goods and services can be a continuous source of joy, if we keep "milking" them for joy by renewing our appreciation of them. But you cannot simply buy joy. You have to engage with the world to extract joy from it.

Or alternatively you could engage with Spirit and extract joy from it. But that's beyond the scope of this entry. (Besides, I am probably less of a pneumanaut than people believe.)

Yesterday <-- This month --> Tomorrow?
One year ago: Body: 8
Two years ago: Still no vacation
Three years ago: Onegai teacher
Four years ago: Language and thought
Five years ago: Brains! We want brains!
Six years ago: Bridge to nowhere
Seven years ago: Borrowing and spending
Eight years ago: The August of life

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