Our wealth is relative to our desire

November 25, 2008|By Diane Cameron

We are concerned about the economy. We worry about the stock market, investments and retirement. We hesitate to open bank statements. We are told, "It will get better." "It will get worse." "It will rebound." Some say it will be bad for another year and then it will improve.

How do we cope? We have to make do with less.

Lots of articles offer advice: Eat at home. Take the bus. Rearrange, don't redecorate. At the heart are these questions: What can you live without? Can we be happy with less? Can we do it when the American way is all about believing that we need and deserve more?

What I keep thinking about is what it was like when I really did have less.

In my 20s, I lived in Washington, D.C. and made $13,000. I had an apartment and a car. I packed my lunch and saved up to go out for dinner. Was I really as happy as I remember?

Yes - we all were. The reason isn't complicated. We wanted less. I was proud to be paying rent. I wanted to drive instead of take the bus, so making the car payment for my used 1971 VW Beetle was great. I bought clothes on sale or at consignment stores, and when friends moved they passed along furniture they didn't want.

But over time, through reading and travel and meeting people, I learned about nicer cars and better clothes. I began to want a real couch and a newer car and I began to fantasize about someday buying a house.

Later, my hopes included owning a Subaru and - I laugh to remember this - I thought I'd have the perfect wardrobe when I could buy one (yeah, one) really good purse.

Today, four houses later and many closets filled with shoes and purses, I can feel deprived simply by thinking about making my car last a couple more years. Everything I have now is nicer than what I had at 25, but it's easy to feel poor. Why? Because I have seen - and imagined - better.

Wealth is relative to desire. Every time we yearn for something we can't afford, we become poor, regardless of our resources. And when we are satisfied with what we have, we are rich. The hard part is to ignore knowing. We know there are nicer things, and we know people who have them. In most cases we don't really know those people - but we think we do because we have seen them.

For this, you can blame television and magazines like O and Vogue. We see what others buy and own and wear. Our appetites are continuously whetted. Every new thing whispers its promise of happiness, then gradually slides into the background of everyday life. Then we notice that someone else has a different or nicer thing.

This is why many of us recall feeling better when we were younger. We felt like we had enough because we hadn't yet begun to compare ourselves to others. We didn't expect that we should have a lot more.

It's our expectations that trip us up. We substitute one desire for another, convinced each time that the next whatever will make us happy.

There are two ways to make a man richer, Rousseau reasoned: Give him more money or curb his desires. What we need is not more wealth but less desire.

The solution this year: Expect less and want less. It's so anti-American, so unhelpful to the economy. But so sane and so smart.

Diane Cameron is a writer in Guilderland, N.Y. Her e-mail is dcameron6@nycap.rr.com.

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