I first noticed it during the coverage of the Winter Olympics. It was a Cadillac commercial for their newest car. It starts simply enough, with an attractive, middle aged man extolling the virtues of all things American. Then it goes off the rails, and fast. He makes fun of other countries that have more liberal vacation policies, is incredulous that people in other Western nations take 1 month off from work at a time and concludes the commercial by saying Americans work harder because we want more things. The commercial is repulsive, offensive and I believe practically jingoistic. It’s everything that is wrong with our culture in 2014, and I don’t think I’m alone in that feeling.
In the past two weeks I’ve seen a lot of media coverage about a topic I first started addressing on this site almost from the very beginning. The New York Times, Huffington Post and even professional travel writers have all written pieces, variations on the theme that experiences in life are more important than all of the toys we could ever hope to possess. I’ve analyzed this in a number of ways, but I thought given the popularity of the subject, I’d try to once again crack this existential nut.
Power of things
The one fallacy that I see in the aforementioned commercial is that it assumes that all people are driven in life by the possession of things. I remember when I was in elementary school, during the height of the 1980s years of excess, a poster in a store featured a fancy car with the line, “The one with the most toys wins.” I think I believed that for a long time and both my partner and I were absolutely driven in the race to get more stuff, to get fancier stuff and then let everyone know about it. We have a house that is too large and cars that are too expensive, both reminders of an ethos that we have thankfully since discarded. But what it this power that things have over us, why the rampant desire to accumulate?
I’m not going to answer that question in a 1,000-word post; books have been written, studies conducted and still it hasn’t been answered adequately. What I do know is that it is a cultural poison, one of our major problems as a civilization. Is there any problem with making money and buying nice things? No way, not at all. My virtual Apple Store of electronics proves that it doesn’t bother me. What does bother me is when people pursue that as their main goal in life, rather than have it be just a part of their life as it should be. That’s what the commercial I hate alludes to. It urges us to ignore real actions in life that will make us happy in lieu of avatars of happiness. Soulless cars and fancy clothes; things that when we are old and frail will have long since been forgotten. What won’t be forgotten is what we do in life and how we do it.
Love the one you’re with
Yes, it really is all about the experiences, and this resonates throughout every facet of our life. Which will you remember more when you’re 89 – giving your daughter a new doll or her first time at the beach. I’m betting it’s the beach. Instead of accumulating things, we should be accumulating experiences and in the process memories. As others have correctly pointed out, this also translates very well to travel. Instead of spending money on houses that are too big or cars a few thousand dollars beyond one’s needs, I think diverting that money towards travel experiences is more important.
My partner and I are comfortable, but rarely do we buy new clothes and never anything all that nice, we seldom go to a restaurant and other than Apple products, we really don’t buy a lot of toys. Why? Because for us, what is more important is life is experiencing as much of the world as possible through travel. We save so that we can do a long weekend in Iceland or take an impromptu break in Florida. We have learned that what we value most in life is what we do, not what we own. We still talk about travel memories from a decade ago; we’re certainly not talking about the car we owned.
Which gets me to my next point. I think solo travel from time to time is absolutely wonderful – it’s a soul cleansing experience. But overall, I do believe that the travel experience is heightened by sharing it with someone. It doesn’t have to be a significant other, it can be a best friend or even colleague, but having someone there with you during the moment and years afterward to reflect on it, is truly a wonderful thing. We’re humans, we weren’t meant to always be alone and that’s particularly true when we explore the world.
What’s with the title?
Ah yes, the happiness trap. That’s what I call the life many of us lead. We’ve been fooled to think that certain things equal happiness. Growing up I never even considered deviating from the path that was laid out for me. College to grad school to job to better job to having lots of stuff. I was promised that at the end I would be happy, but that didn’t happen. Why? Because it’s a false argument. A mindless road of accumulating possessions never leads to happiness because there’s no end to it; it’s a continual process of one-upping yourself. Not only that, but doing anything that doesn’t make you happy WHILE YOU’RE DOING IT, is not worth doing at all.
I’m not saying that what you’re doing now is wrong. While I have an unconventional job, all of my lifelong friends and even my partner have very traditional jobs and lead traditional lives. That’s great, that’s normal. But it’s how you live this life that matters. It’s how meaningful you make your life that at the end of the day will be the true measure of what you accomplished on this planet.
One of my favorite movies is “Defending Your Life”. In it the recently deceased have to defend their actions in life after which a panel of judges must decide if they’ve learned enough to move on. The worst thing in their eyes is being afraid. Being afraid to be who you are or to live the life you want to. Afraid to pursue those experiences in life that ultimately define us as people. No matter what your path is in life or what you decide to do, just make sure that when it’s your turn to face that panel of judges, you can’t say you were too afraid to live a meaningful life not full of things, but full of people and memories.