March 27, 2013

The thing that is happiness

March 27, 2013
We are hypnotized by stuff...
What did the little girl see in the giant plastic eyes of the oversize Easter bunny?

Sunday afternoon at the mall: harassed parents attempt to navigate the maze of stores and junk-food outlets while their increasingly restless progeny demand instant gratification and throw covetitis-triggered temper tantrums; acne-ridden teenagers roam in packs seeking to purchase self-validation and peer respect; couples bow respectfully at the cash register and rekindle their love with yet another swipe of the credit card; a handful of renegades that have broken free from their shopping-addled family unit sheepishly savor the silent respite of the small public library jammed as an afterthought between two chain stores; a little girl holds the fuzzy baby blue polyester paw of an oversize Easter bunny throning among eggs in his pastel-colored grotto opposite the restrooms.

Welcome to First World dystopia.

Consumerism is our credo, self-worth is measured in material goods, more is never enough, we appraise one another according to the sum of what we own, and happiness is only another transaction away. 

Coveting – and its window shopping variant, a time-consuming activity designed to satisfy materialistic urges without exposing the pseudo-consumer to any financial side-effects – have long been favorite hobbies of ours, sometimes even a pursuit in themselves.

As a kid growing up in the less well-heeled suburbs of one of Europe's biggest capital cities, I remember my mother dragging me along for lengthy window-shopping expeditions. We would brave the stench of the subway and dodge the many dog turds and homeless folks dotting the main shopping arteries just to go look at stuff, a bizarre ritual that might result in a slice of baked cheesecake if I behaved i.e. if I didn't get stuck interminable minutes holding the door for thankless shoppers or attempted to give away my modest pocket money to the hoary man who reeked of wee and held a cardboard sign saying he was hungry.

To my mother, who was born a day after V-E Day and grew up poor as one of eight children in the countryside, these outings served as a periodical reminder of her social ascension.

To me, those outings were painful, probably because a child who is only 50 inches tall experiences the world differently from an adult. I was level with those homeless folks sitting on the sidewalk and no matter how often my mother tried to yank me away, I saw them, and I saw them as no different from us.


Today's mall is different. This is a sanitized, air-conditioned and security-heavy environment designed to keep the undesirable out and the shopping experience guilt-free, presumably because there is nothing more distasteful than an unwashed hobo in rags staring you down as you slurp a mega designer coffee and try to balance the many shopping bags on your wrist, taking great care to display them according to brand desirability. 

For the toddlers attracted by bright lights and colors, the teenagers hanging out after school, the cross-generational families looking for an outing or the seniors enjoying moderate exercise in a climate-controlled and visually stimulating environment, the mall is the universal aspirational destination of choice, a place dedicated to communing freely with stuff and improving ourselves.

At the mall, our needs and wants become indistinguishable from each other.

At the mall, we're empowered to make decisions that are always justified, regardless of what we buy. 

At the mall, we peg our happiness onto the next purchase, worshiping at the altar of consumerism. Instead of praying for the common good in churches, temples and mosques, we pray for individuals goods in cathedrals of want.

We righteously resent the price of stuff whenever we cannot afford it because there is never any question in our mind that we deserve it. In a logic where the benchmark is always others, if they can have it then so should we – we are just as entitled to stuff as they are.

We seek instant gratification at any cost, signing our life away on the dotted line of mathematically-questionable financing plans and credit card applications just so we can improve our life again. And again. And again.

But whatever we buy, we are never satisfied.

Our relationship with stuff is often one of unquestioning servitude, so much so that we even rent little storage units on the outskirts of town when we have run out of space for stuff in our homes. A monthly fee buys us a key and visiting rights to our stuff so we can go assuage our fears that someone else might have appropriated it.

Like the faithful who believe happiness lies in the divine delivery of some miracle or other, objectifying happiness has made time-traveling automatons out of most of us. Depending on our bank balance, we either live in a past when we had stuff or in a future when we will, negating the present and all the mindfulness, contentment and gratitude that would probably come with it if only we stopped wanting for just a moment. 

What if we took stock of our lives and focused on those – rather than the stuff – in it?

For example, my partner and I currently don't have a sofa to sit on but two ancient, hand-me-down scratchy armchairs partially destroyed by a cat no longer in control of his bodily functions. Every night, we have dinner balancing a plate on our lap because we don't own a dining table.


... we eat nourishing vegan meals lovingly cooked from scratch with fresh ingredients, we have a roof over our head, and most importantly we adore – and are here for – each other. 

Have you ever wondered what might happen if we allowed ourselves to feel more?

My mother now whiles away her retirement in stores and shopping malls trying to plug the gaping void left by searing loneliness and the geographical loss of a daughter she could never really love, and her now obese ex-husband and his similarly rotund 'new wife' (of 25 plus years!) barricade themselves in their high-rise condo, eating away their resentment at being trapped in their home because of an increasingly dangerous neighborhood, and plotting the next long-haul vacation that makes their daily life bearable.

Have you ever wondered what might happen if we allowed ourselves to think more? If we asked ourselves what it is that we really long for?

For years, I tried to alleviate professional frustration, repressed creative urges, and the absence of a fulfilling personal life by regularly squandering my once sizable disposable income on palliative shopping hauls that often ended up as unworn thrift stores donations, complete with tags. Two career changes, several years, countries, and editorial dares later, I'm no longer a stranger to hunger, my wardrobe fits into a suitcase, and clothes are something that often come from the clearance rack at the grocery store. Now however, most most days are a source of joy and wonderment rather than an ordeal to be endured through gritted teeth.

Have you ever wondered what might happen if we allowed ourselves to value more of those little things that can neither be sold nor marketed to us because there is no profit in them?

Maybe we would find wonder in our wondering and finally see that happiness is ubiquitous, simply waiting for us to acknowledge it...


  1. Forget the mall, this is the digital age! What about Amazon wish lists and hours spent on line drooling over stuff before adding it to a list knowing we'll never be able to afford any of it? Consumerism ate our brains! PS/ I bet your place smells nice...

  2. Hi B! How could I overlook those?! Amazon wish lists: window shopping for agoraphobics? :-) As for the smell, I'll have you know that I am fully house-trained and a dab hand at catching a cat turd before it even has a chance to hit the floor. Pee and puke are a little more problematic though, but I'm a competent house fairy and there's always a window cracked open somewhere. ;-D