Stuff, Stuff and More Stuff – Why Money (Still) Can’t Buy Happiness
Like many parents having their college-age son or daughter home for their summer break, we’re enjoying quality time with our son who’s been away studying (supposedly) at a university in Tokyo. In between snatches of conversation about life in Japan and once-again lively family meals, he’s been entertaining his buddies from high school practically during all hours that he’s awake. But we still enjoy having them, partly as they’ve also been helping us sort and clear out some of the considerable amount of things that we have accumulated over the years that were cluttering up the house – what I call the “debris of life.”
Our son having moved out of his room two and a half year ago and our daughter out of hers about a year ago, and what with these rooms having had to be cleared out for student boarders and visiting relatives, a lot of things had to be “temporarily” piled up in a storage room or parts of other rooms. Electronic gizmos no longer in use, books, old clothes too nice to be given away “just yet,” large ornaments, kid-sized furniture, old sports equipment, and all manner of bric-a-brac crammed into boxes for “later disposal.” Things kids left behind. Things we stopped using that are not very valuable but still too expensive, or having too much emotional attachment, to throw away. But we still sigh from time to time …how did we manage to accumulate all this stuff ?!
Many of them are the debris of technological obsolescence, like old LPs, casette tapes and now even CDs, and gadget like TVs and monitors with “tube” screens instead of today’s flat-screen display, which most of us probably would have disposed of by now. Incidentally, cluttered dwellings have become a big issue in highly space-constrained Japanese cities. It was around a decade or so ago that I started hearing about the “I-have-nothing-to-buy syndrome” among Japanese consumers. In other words, one may not have enough space or money to buy big things like houses and cars, but most other things one needs, like clothes, household appliances and gadgets, one already had.
Thinking back over the decades, all this preoccupation with material possessions can be neatly sorted out into three distinct eras by popular buzzwords defining each one. In chronological order, they are: standard of living, quality of life and gross national happiness. And over those decades, there’s been a steady process of equalization of the material standard of living throughout the “industrialized world,” or “the globe.”
“Standard of living” was the word the media used back in the post-war 1950s through the 60s and maybe into the 70s when the North American standard of living was indisputably the highest in the world. The popular phrase dating back to the “Camelot” days of President Kennedy (assassinated in ‘63) was the “shining citadel on the hill.” It’s a far cry from today but back then, we in Japan and much of the rest of Asia and Europe believed it too. US was economically, militarily and socio-culturally the world’s top nation. If you went to the US or Canada to study or work, nobody asked you why. They just envied you. The summer of 1962 is still etched in my mind. That was when most of my Tokyo American school friends left for college in the States. I might have been able to get a scholarship if I’d tried hard enough, but I didn’t. My family couldn’t afford to pay for my college education in the US, so I ended up graduating in Japan and going to the UK as a trainee journalist thereafter. The living standard there, I felt at the time, was somewhat better than Japan, but still way behind what I imagined the US standard to be, based on movies, TV and hearsay.
For Nikkei Canadians and Americans, especially those with close relatives in Japan, and for these Japanese relatives themselves, too, there was not a shred of doubt about the real gap in the “standard of living” between North America and Japan. Inevitably, the better off folks cannot help feeling a bit superior. It’s only human nature.
People stopped talking about the “standard of living” in the US and other leading nations sometime during the 70s, when Japanese consumers began to feel they were just as fulfilled in the material sense as their counterparts across the Pacific. The Japanese, along with western Europeans and North Americans as part of the “industrialized world,” felt their material needs were taken care of. That’s when people started talking about the “quality of life (QOL).”
Having caught up with North Americans and Europeans in terms of consumer life (with the notable exception of car for every family made impractical by urban population density) from the 70s into the 80s, middle-class Japanese began enjoying extras like overseas trips and luxury brand products, fine cuisines and expensive consumer goods and services to improve their QOL. Probably indicators like wine consumption and European trips grew among North American consumers too. QOL also meant greater concern for our natural environment like clean air, and people started paying more attention to what they ate. Again, a far cry from today’s epicureans’ and gluttons’ orgy of food mania (as occasionally glimpsed on the various foodie TV channels).
You must be familiar with the “world of IKEA.” Recently, the global furniture and household goods retailer opened a giant new outlet in Richmond, considerably bigger than its predecessor that used to stand next to where the new store is. During a recent “look see,” I was checking out all the apartment-sized bedroom, kitchen and living room mock-ups, so sensibly and attractively appointed in that practical Scandinavian way and suddenly realized, this lifestyle fits contemporary urban living to a “t,” whether one is living in Vancouver, Toronto, NY, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, London, Paris, Helsinki…anywhere. I remember shopping at an IKEA outlet for the first time in Singapore in the late 80s. What then looked like cool Scandinavian lifestyle is now the readily affordable standard for the whole industrialized world.
But human desire knows no end. Oblivious to religionists’ and philosophers’ warning that “money can’t buy happiness,” we tend to get lost in the consumer life of our material culture.
The tiny kingdom of Bhutan up the Himalayas has been receiving a lot of attention in recent years. That’s because this Buddhist nation is the only one in the world to measure the people’s quality of life and social progress in holistic, rather than just economical terms, calling it gross national happiness (GNH). Introduced in 1972 by the fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wanchuk, GNH is based on the following contributors to happiness: physical, mental and spiritual health, time-balance, social and community vitality, cultural vitality, education, living standards, good governance and ecological vitality.
“Time-balance” between working hours and one’s own time, I hear, has been a topic of major interest in Japan of late. Vancouver, which would rate high by the above criteria, is ranked around the top of the “most liveable city in the world” ranking every year. The meaning of happiness may vary from person to person, but our locale at least seems to be one of the best places for the “pursuit of happiness.”