Are you 2.5 items away from being happy?

Antonia Case

We have come across a very interesting article written by Antonia Case called “The Stuff Gap”.  Antonia shows how it’s human nature and a key part of the survival of our species to be continually ambitious to attain more stuff.  In fact, she said that our inherent “unhappiness” is our greatest gift – the motivational force that’s seen us conquer just about every other organism on the planet. Antonia also explains that we seem to be always 2.5 items away from being happy.  Is this you?

Read on for Antonia’s article below…

There are many warm and fuzzy sayings about owning your own home, not least of which is one by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard: “If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” It’s this shelter for daydreaming, undisturbed by demands and jealousies, that makes us yearn for a home of our own.

From the vantage point of the second storey window, I move the curtain aside. I breathe and take  in the view, a perspective I could be see­ing for the rest of my life. My eyes scan the backyard fence separating the house from  the neighbour’s yard. I swivel hard, and point. “that house is… is… incredible… ”

“Oh, yes,” the estate agent says smugly, his eye resting on the neigh­bour’s gabled roof. “I sold that house last year. You see, back in the day that house was the main residence. This house,” he says with a pause, “the one you are standing in right now, this house was its stables.”

I can’t smell horse hair, but I think I could if l tried hard enough. I wander downstairs, a little crestfallen, out to the garden. The agent shows me the flower beds, and indeed, they are a credit to the owner at this time of year. But I’m back gazing at the other house, this time pressed up against the fence, taking in the neighbour’s sandstone pillars and arched windows.

On closer inspection, I see a barbed wire fence surrounding the side entrance; laundry hangs limply on a makeshift rope; the gardens are patchy. But why is it in such disarray? To own such a grand house, surely one would wake every day committed to the art of maintaining it?

Just to clarify: the house I’m standing in is, as the brochure says, a stunning example of Federation, Queen Anne-style architecture, and rooms which once accommodated a gentleman’s carriage, horses, and tack now farm part of a stunning and gracious family home.” But life doesn’t exist in isolation; the house stands amidst other houses. And the truth is, the house over the fence is, even in its dishevelled state, significantly better.

This story is certainly not novel.

It ‘s a well-known narrative, summed up by expressions such  as “the  grass is always greener on the other side” or “keeping up with the Joneses”, which refers to the tendency of neighbours to copy one another’s purchases of cars, pools, and driveways. But these quaint expressions do not reveal the underlying cause of what’s going on here. Why can’t we be happy with what we have? Why are we always looking over the fence for what ap­pears to be a better life?

As organisms, writes Daniel Nettle in Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile, we need to seek out things that are best for us. To survive, or even better, to flourish, we must be “constantly scanning the horizon on the lookout for a better environment, a better social network, a better mode of behaviour. And it should always have left a little space of discontent open, just in case something hovers into view which is really special,” he writes. If we didn’t behave like this, argues Nettle, we wouldn’t be very successful organisms. If we had remained in the Petri dish boasting about our naturally-superior DNA, we’d have been wiped out by a more ambitious organism. It could be said, therefore, that our capacity for unhappiness is our greatest gift – the motivational force that’s seen us conquer just about every other organism on the planet. (Here’s one for unhappiness. Or not.)

Into this gap, between what we want and what we actually have, enters consumerism with its dazzling line-up of products. “Peddlers of nostalgia, spiritual systems, drugs, and all kinds of consumer goods,” writes Net­tle, will slip into this space promising to narrow the gap “between our present contentment and possible super ­ contentment”. Stuff that appeals to our need to signal to others our biological fitness – status, beauty, health, or wealth – will tempt us more than stuff that’s simply useful for us.

Economist Richard Easterlin asked a cross-section of the US public in 1978 what it meant to be live the ‘good life’. “What do you want out of life?” he enquired. He handed them a card listing 24 big-ticket items, such as a car, television, holidays abroad, swim­ ming pool, and vacation home. “When you think of the good life, the life you’d like to have, which of the items on this list, if any,are part of that good life as far as you personally are concerned?” Respondents were then asked to tick off items on the list that they already owned. The survey was then conducted on the same people 16 years  later, in 1994, and what was most telling was that, while respondents indeed owned more items (3.1 items in 1994 compared to 1.7 items in 1978), they also desired more items on the list (5.6 items required for the good life as op­ posed to 4.4 items in 1978). In other words, over 16 years, the gap between what people had and what they so des­perately desired remained steady at two and half items. They were two and half items short – eternally, so it appears.

What this finding suggests is that perhaps this gap, this small margin of yearning, this nagging sense of inad­equacy, remains no matter where you’re stationed in life. While few of us yearn for a Rembrandt etching on our walls, it quickly becomes an ‘item’ on the list for those with the means to purchase it. While the person on an average sal­ary dreams of a holiday home, the bil­lionaire dreams of a public gallery that bears his name, complete with casino and hotel.

So, it seems, no matter how hard we run in an effort to hurdle that elu­sive ‘stuff gap’, we never actually close it. It’s just not in our DNA.

I often think about the mansion over the fence, surrounded by washing and wire. I think of the owners hud­dled inside the opulent drawing room lined with gold leaf wallpaper debating whether or not they’ll open a brew­ery, go sailing, or buy a little hideaway somewhere in Indonesia. All the while, the roses wilt, the dirt patches grow, and cracks in the arched windows widen.

And the stuff gap remains.

Here’s a quote from Anna C. Brackett…

“We go on multiplying our conveniences only to multi­ply our cares. We increase our possessions only to the enlargement of our anxieties. There is, I presume, no careful housekeeper who has not, in some desperate moment of going to the country or of  returning therefrom, wished that civilisation had never existed, and envied the freedom of the Indian woman who could peacefully leave her wigwam to the prairie-dogs and carry her wardrobe on her back. But such wishes as these are unavailing; we  are living in modern cities, and we must find some way out of our own problems, not falling into ‘blue-rose melancholy’, which is of all things the narrowest and the most hopeless. We are not alone in the trouble forced upon  us by  the  innumerable inventions,  products  of the intense mental activity of the time into which we were born.”