Last week I wrote a piece about the things that our forefathers never had to include in their budgets and the damage that those items are doing to our finances today. Writing that piece opened my eyes to another problem we have with our finances today. Many of us are no longer content with a simple life. As a result, we’re caught in a downward spiral where we spend thinking the next new gadget or toy will make us content, it does not, and then we spend again thinking that surely this new thing will make us content with life.
I don’t know when we lost our appreciation for the simple life, but most of those things in that earlier piece (cell phones, video games, restaurants, cars, mass market entertainment, pay TV, etc.) are things that complicate our lives rather than simplify them. They may be fun, but they require time and energy to buy or subscribe to, travel to, keep supplied with games or gas, and maintain. Simple they are not and they certainly don’t simplify our budgets, coming as they do with extra fees and bills.
I was thinking about the people I know who are older (let’s say over seventy) and old enough to remember a time before TV, shopping malls, video games and computers. Most of the members of this age group that I know still shun most of these life complicating gadgets, not because they are fuddy-duddies who can’t be bothered to learn about this technology, but because they don’t need it to live a full life. Having grown up in a simpler time they don’t require such things to make them happy. They are happy with a good book, some time to think, pray or meditate, some time outdoors, a needlework project, a woodworking hobby, or time with family and friends. In other words, it takes very little to make them content.
Most of us of more recent generations are seemingly discontented with the simple life and in fact find it downright unacceptable. Suggest to most fifteen year olds that they turn off the computer and read a book and they’ll look at you like you’ve sprouted a third eye ball. Suggest to many people in their thirties or forties that they get rid of the fancier car and drive a beater and they’ll tell you fifteen reasons why they “have to have” the fancier car. Suggest to almost anyone younger than sixty that they might not really need a cell phone and you’ll get looks of disbelief and vehement protests to the contrary. Most of us simply are no longer content with simple entertainments and pleasures. We require ever bigger and flashier things to keep us content, and even those don’t work for long.
When we’re not content we spend an awful lot of money trying to become content. We buy newer, faster computers, fancier cars, upgrade our gaming systems and cell phones every time a new one comes out, subscribe to ever bigger cable packages, get bigger home theater systems (and the bigger houses needed to house the “media room”), and eat out more and more often. And for what? You can’t tell me that any of this is necessary to survive or even be happy. In fact, the more of this we buy and more we realize that it’s not making us content, we become something even worse: Disenchanted. Nothing is interesting anymore, everything is boring, everything disappoints. You’d think this disenchantment would teach us to step off the consumer treadmill and try something simpler, but it only seems to ramp up our desire to find that magic bullet that will cure our discontent. So we spend even more, hunting for something that is probably right in front of us all along.
I would argue that prior generations were happier even though they had less stuff and entertainment than we do. They found happiness and fulfillment in their communities, families, and in their own heads. They didn’t look constantly to outside sources of entertainment or status to know their self worth and make them content. Simple pleasures still had the power to enchant and enthrall. Compared to current generations it must have been a very peaceful existence. They spent far less time and money on the hunt for stuff, maintaining stuff, and paying for stuff. They didn’t have houses bursting at the seams with clutter (watch one episode of Clean House and you can see how the out of control search for contentment can wreck your home). Their families weren’t scattered all over the place and entrenched in their own worlds even when under the same roof. There wasn’t a constant feeling that something is missing from life, that there is a void that needs to be filled.
So if you want to get away from this feeling of discontent and get back to something simpler and more meaningful, what can you do? You don’t have to give up every modern convenience and go live in a yurt. The key is to find what you really value and let the rest of the noise of modern life go. Do you really get value out of TV, or is it a way to pacify you when you’d be happier doing other things? Do you really value that fancy car and all the money it costs or do you only keep it because it “says something about you?” Do you value the video game system or is it simply a way to keep the kids out of your hair for a couple of hours? Do you value the time you spend together as a family, or are you really happy being apart?
It isn’t easy to get back to a simpler time. It requires dealing with yourself and admitting that the search for contentment through stuff isn’t working. And when you get back to that simpler way of being, it means you might have to deal with people you’ve ignored for years like your kids, your spouse, or your parents. I hear you now. “I don’t ignore my kids or my spouse!” Really? Then why don’t you eat dinner together and why are you in the den watching TV and the kids are in their rooms playing video games every night? It won’t be easy to suddenly forge tighter relationships, but it is possible if you disconnect from the consumer treadmill and start dealing with one another.
Here are some ideas that you can try if you want to get back to a simpler way of being and search for contentment through non-consumer means. Summer is a great time to work on this project because the longer days and warmer weather make it easier to be outside and to separate from the electronic gadgetry.
Turn off the TV: You don’t have to give up every show, but start to notice when you’re just watching to pass the time as opposed to really being interested in something. Watch only when it’s something you really want to see.
Take up a hobby: Photography, woodworking, scrap-booking, needlework, drawing/painting, music, writing, arts and crafts are great ways to use your hands and your mind. They take you away from the quest for “more” and let you create things that are meaningful to you. They also build your self esteem. If you know you’re good at drawing, for example, you might find that you don’t need that fancy car to validate you as a person.
Eat dinner together as a family, without the TV on or phones allowed at the table: It forces you to talk to each other and build relationships. You might be surprised at what you learn about each other.
Get involved in your community: Volunteer for a meaningful cause, get involved at church or just offer to help an elderly neighbor with their lawn chores. You’ll get to meet new people, spend a few hours away from the consumer treadmill, and spend some time doing honest work that will make you feel good.
Go play outside: Play catch with the kids or chase fireflies. Go for a run or have a picnic in the park. Being outside in the fresh air is relaxing and any exercise you get is beneficial. The kids can blow off some steam, and so can the adults.
Read: It sounds awful to most people, but reading can be fun. Read whatever you want and don’t worry about satisfying a requirement for school or learning something. Just open your mind to a good story and let it take you away. You might find that your mind is a better theater than the multiplex.
Play games: Board games, puzzles, and cards are great ways to entertain a family while preserving the interaction with each other. You can talk while others play their turns.
Do anything that requires you to use your imagination (and don’t censor yourself). Kids have forgotten how to use their imaginations and most adults aren’t much better. Even things like Legos no longer encourage free thinking. It’s hard to find just a bucket of Legos, everything is a complete model of something with no imagination required to build it. Write poetry or a story, make up a story to tell the family, draw, build something out of wood or scrap materials found around the house, make a fort, pretend, create a game and new rules. Anything that you imagine yourself is fair game. Don’t rely one prepackaged entertainment. Think of your own.
Clean out the clutter: Give away or sell stuff that doesn’t make you content. If it’s costing you more in energy and time to keep the thing than you’re gaining in happiness, get rid of it.
Turn off the computer for a while: Stop emailing, texting and reading message boards. This can become very addictive and it’s interacting impersonally rather than face to face. Plus, the Internet is so full of ads for things that it can only make you want to shop and spend. Ease up on the electronic medium and go talk to people in person.
Relax: Contrary to popular belief, not every minute of the day has to be structured and scheduled, for adults or kids. It’s okay, even advisable, to spend a little time each day just doing nothing. Just think or daydream. It’s not only relaxing, but it gets you into your head where you’re more likely to find the key to your happiness than at the mall.
You might find these activities boring at first. Depending on how discontented you are with yourself and your life, you might find the process of reconnecting with yourself and your family to be downright painful. Breaking away from the consumer search for happiness can feel like breaking a drug addiction. It can be hard and almost miserable at first. Kids who’ve never known another way can be particularly hard hit. I speak from experience. We used to search for happiness at the mall and we worshiped at the altar of Best Buy. But we broke the hold using the ideas above and now we are much happier with ourselves, our relationships, and our community. We actually know what’s going on with each other and in the neighborhood. We’re healthier, too. Sure, we still play video games sometimes or use computers, but they don’t rule us and we don’t look to stuff for the answer when we’re bored or unhappy. We content with our life, enchanted by the small things, and not broke.