Live long and prosper?

February 26th, 2011


Somehow I don’t think Mr. Spock meant to say “Die old and make loads of money”.

And yet most dictionaries define “prosperity” in terms of rising profits. Politicians and the media seem to bombard us with the notion that aggressive economic growth is our main goal. Economic growth is certainly important in order to avoid stagnation but the popular emphasis seems to have been on an unhealthy type of prosperity, a prosperity that serves only to enable us into consume more.

That leads us in the consumption trap:

We live to work, we work to earn, we earn to consume.

I have friends who work in the retail business and their sales targets are never based on studies of the economic realities that might actually influence sales, such as footfall, or the disposable income of the local community, but on how much money the company directors decide they want to make (I’m convinced unrealistic sales targets are also used as a technique for making sure staff don’t qualify for a bonus).

Prosperity has almost come to be synonymous with greed, but the sad thing is that most people haven’t noticed.

How many people in Ireland bought a big house out in some new development, then spent four hours a day commuting to and from a job which paid them more money than they had ever earned before, only to spend it on things that have a very short life-span: TVs, Smartphones, clothes, 4x4s?

We don’t own out stuff. Our stuff owns us. It’s like a virus that takes over its host, forcing us to spend more time making more money to buy more stuff.

Last year I spent €600 on an iPhone 4. Not with credit. Not on any kind of monthly plan. I paid the full amount up front because I had it. When a colleague asked why I had bought it, I started to think about the functional characteristics of the device, but then I paused and remarked: “Because out of the past five months I have spent only four weekends at home.”

How often we use our prosperity to buy us things to comfort us for the lack of quality of life that very same prosperity costs us.

What values have we been passing on to our children over the past fifteen years?
Greed is good?
You are entitled to stuff?
Economic success is what makes you a decent person?
And the one I hate the most, Burger King’s mantra: Have it your way.

Ireland’s deficit is not just an economic one.

What about the message that it’s better to spend less time earning money in order to spend more time with your family? There is something incredibly warming about the story of the couple who built a working “Angry Birds” birthday cake for their son’s birthday. It took hours to make and it was something the child could enjoy only for a few minutes. On the other hand, an XBox would have taken minutes to buy and the child could have played with it for years. Which would the boy remember fondly in years to come? Which would make him know that his parents truly loved him?

I like the Merriam-Webster definition of prosperity because it uses the phrase “economic well-being”, rather than “wealth” or “rising profits”.

I’m an a-theist, so when I use the word “soul”, I mean it figuratively, but I believe true “prosperity” has to have something for the soul and not just for the pocket.

Here is a lovely article in The Irish Times on the concept of “enough“.

7 Responses to “Live long and prosper?”

  1. JJon 26 Feb 2011 at

    I’ve been thinking these same things for years, the whole world is based on people spending money they don’t have on crap they don’t need, which is ultimately deeply unsatisfying.
    Check out this link, I think this guy is right on the money in a lot of what he’s saying
    http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy.html

  2. Tim Panagoson 26 Feb 2011 at

    Ironically, I enjoyed the video of the Angry Birds cake to my children on my iPhone.

  3. Declan Chellaron 26 Feb 2011 at

    Ironically, I approved your comment on my iPad. :)

  4. Declan Chellaron 26 Feb 2011 at

    I’ve seen that video before, JJ, but it was great to watch it again.

    It’s very interesting to know that we are so bad at predicting future happiness. I would love to know why we are so bad at it. I assume it’s because we no longer use that “tool” within the context for which it evolved.

  5. wychwoodon 11 Mar 2011 at

    I’m going to play devil’s advocate to an extent, because while I agree with much of the sentiment, I’m finding this statement being made in some very dubious contexts outisde of this blog.

    i do think a lot of us spend more money on stuff we don’t need, plus i9mpulse buys, but at the same time much of the spending is actually to secure upgrades in the tools we need or use. personally i have rather primitive tech circumstances, but much opf people’s spending si on tech devices t5hat faciliate communication between friends, family and work.

    If the tech devices you use to keep in touch don’t match the other devices they beed to communicate with , well, they need to be upgraded, don’t they? You might not need to update a phone every month, but to update every two or three years seems to be the go simply so people can take advantage of new advances and capacities, plus the new protocols and networks that develop.
    Not all computer tools are like cars, some of which can still be used from over 60 years ago! Clothes, tools, furniture, often these need to be updated or refreshed, espcially those with holes! Big holes! Unmendable holes!

    I should point out i do not have a mobile phone. I have internet, but would rather like an Ipad, but don’t have one. i have recommended one for some relatives however who hate PCS – an Ipad would be perfect for them.

    If you’re talking about the kind of buying where parents buy stuff fo0r kids simply to make up for their absence well, that using gioods to fill an emotional gap isn’t it? And there is a huge movement in upcycling in the design and DIY world, so people ahve soert of noticed the huge amount of stuff they can cut down on or reuse…

    As to predicting happiness, I’m not quite sure what you mean by this, but Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania has done a lot of happiness research.
    as far as i recall, he found that people who make mistakes but realise that their situation is temporary, capable of being fixed, and that it shows they made a mistake but are not bad people because of it will thrive and tend to be happier. They are optimists.

    Pessimists tend to blame themselves for mistakes in that they see themselves as bad people, something they cannot fix or alter.
    this is a VERY brief account of his findings but they are well worth exploring in his books.
    http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/search?searchTerm=Martin%2BE.P.%2BSeligman&redirected=true&gclid=CObg8-bJxqcCFQbSbgodnE5yEg

    The four i have read i found very insightful and obviously go into this issue in far greater depth than i have gone into here.

    BTW, my mum made a birthday cake for my 12th birthday. I still remember it vividly, despite my shopping.. Respect!

  6. wychwoodon 11 Mar 2011 at

    Apologies for spelling mistakes, the font is very tiny on my screen!

  7. wychwoodon 14 Mar 2011 at

    offtopic, but appropriate to your blog.

    Blogger Paul Schnee says of writers:
    “A good writer has a third ear not for words but for human nature. In many ways it is the same as someone who, without any lessons and without sheet music, can sit down and play the piano with ease and often with some brilliance. ”

    cheerio.

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