Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Stuff of Happiness

Here's a page out of my sketch book (made from recycled paper). I've been sitting in the evening by the fire (am I using up non-renewable resources?) and playing in my sketch book.  This Buddha is done in a grey conte crayon. Is conte crayon stuff, is it toxic, how and where is it produced?  Do you see where I'm going with this?  I know, I need to offer a few more clues, no not Colonel Mustard in the Library with the candlestick type clues.

This afternoon we went to hear Annie Leonard (from The Story of Stuff) speak.  I'm thinking about what she has to say from a spiritual and more specifically a  Buddhist perspective.

Stuff.... Big topic.  And Leonard never takes a holier than thou, guilt inducing stance.  She staunchly says she is not anti- stuff.  In fact she comments how a lot of environmentalists shoot themselves in the foot (my words, not hers, but ouch, it still hurts) by pointing pinkies and making people feel guilty for using the wrong light bulbs or forgetting to turn the water off when we brush our teeth.  Did you ever learn anything in this way?  Did guilt ever make you a better person??  So in a way, Leonard is a lot like a Buddhist.  No proselytizing.  She aims to motivate, inspire and empower.

But back to stuff.  Does stuff make us happy?  From a Buddhist perspective, hitching your happiness to the wagon of outer things, of any ilk, takes us down the road of disappointment or the boulevard of suffering at some point.  Leonard talked about how the happiness quotient in the US and, by extension, we will presume the western world, has gone down since the 1950's.  We have a record amount of stuff available to us, a mind tangling array of goods, and yet we are less happy.  Logic would tally that equation and tell us that stuff doesn't make us happy.

Studies, Annie tells us, report that the experience of meaningful community is what makes humans happy, not stuff.  Yet we have, at the urging of corporate and media influence, become consumers first, members of community second.  And here in lies the angst of the modern world, we are hamsters in the corporate ferris wheel.  We often define the solution to environmental issues in terms of buying "different" stuff, get that green light bulb, that organic t-shirt, green gratification.  Not so, says Leonard.  In fact changing our buying habits may lull us into the complacent sleep of thinking we have taken environmental action.  Things really need to change from the top down, Leonard tells us.  She calls things like recycling the bottom end of the chain (is that out-house environmentalism we're practicing?), not that things like recycling are not important.  But they won't ever fully solve the problem, the one that has us using 1 1/2 planets when we only have one.

She frames the problem like this.  We are hurting the planet.  We are hurting each other.  And we aren't having any fun doing it.  And the good news is, there is a way to do things differently.  Sounded a little bit like an environmentalists version of the 4 noble truths.  1. There is suffering, that would be in the hurting.  The way we are using up natural resources and producing toxins hurts all sentient and non sentient beings.  The sad news flash that you won't find on Fox news is that the corporate appetite for increased economic growth and profits over human health and well being is impacting this planet in a big way.  For most of us this is not news.  We're just not sure what to do about it.

Interestingly Leonard points out we're not having any fun wrecking the planet.  Our general experience as modern humans is one of less happiness, more hours of work, less leisure time, more stress and less community engagement.  And what do we do when we're feeling less happy?  According to Leonard we watch TV (Americans on average watch 5 hrs a day, so Canucks we probably do too) and then we buy stuff because the ads on TV tell us stuff will make us happy or at least improve our lives.  In my mind this corresponds to the 2nd noble truth, attachment is the cause of suffering.  We're attached to the belief in stuff as a solution to our unhappiness and we're attached to the temporary pleasure we get from having new stuff.  Pleasure is the short story and not a substitute for happiness, which is a deeper sense of well being.  We are lured by the temporary hit we get from the endless cycle of new stuff (eek, we're stuff junkies).

The third noble truth (there is a way to the end of suffering) is tied in to Leonard's comment that we're not having any fun and we can do something about it (maybe we might have fun in the process).  The 4th noble truth offers the path to the end of suffering (the 8 fold path in our Buddhist list of lists).  This is the call to action in "the story of stuff's" version of the 4 noble truths.  Leonard's premise is that we need to take action at the beginning of the cycle of stuff (it's kind of like draining the ditch, instead of spraying the mosquitoes).  We need to design stuff that does not become obsolete, stuff that isn't toxic.  We need to use stuff in ways that don't chew up our non renewable resources and spit them out in a toxic heap.  And this takes grass roots action by educated, motivated and concerned citizens.  We need to work the top end of the cycle to make real change.  We need to get into those engaged community huddles and figure out how to do this.

So check out Leonard's site and another site called The Good Guide that rates consumer goods.  It is all about being aware (a good Buddhist starting point) and taking right action.  We do these things Leonard points out because "they are the right thing to do".  Leonard spoke as a fund raiser for Raffi's Centre For Child Honoring, that's another topic all of it's own.


  1. Wow - what a neat web site! The Good Guide seems to rate just about everything - from Numi Jasmine Green Tea Monkey King to Lego Clone Walker Battle Pack. Thanks for the introduction!

  2. I think the evolution to "less stuff" will really take off with the upcoming generations. They will grow up with it.

    The core of the problem, in my eyes, is Madison Ave; the culture of money, and power and greed. Another issue is the population the planet can actually support. There are too many of us.

    I have a lot of memories of grandparents who grew up in the depression. I know how to pinch a penny, or my "stuff". I do however, enjoy my creature comforts.

  3. Perhaps our society values "stuff" so highly because of the lack of the experience of meaningful community. That lack could leave an emptiness inside of people that they can't identify, and so they try to fill it with stuff. Obviously, this is a problem that's embedded deeply and widely into the fabric of our society; I'm not sure it will be fixed until a majority of people want to fix it. For most people, there's no motivation, unless it affects them directly.
    Thanks for the intro to the Good Guide; I'll definitely check it out.

  4. i've been thinking about this a lot lately... what got me really thinking about it (more deeply than usual) was that on my trip i stayed in nice houses, and the people who lived in them drove nice cars; the houses were full of nice furniture... in some of the places (where the vibe was also nice : ) i wanted to stay! so much to savor and enjoy!! what luxury! but what struck me more than anything was that the people who lived in these houses had no time or energy to savor and enjoy them. they are so busy 'making' money and paying bills and buying new stuff that the nice environments they've created go almost wholly "un-enjoyed". i'd never seen this so clearly before...

    looking at the societal programming to work and buy has been on my radar for a couple of years, and now more than ever...

    thanks as always, carole, for a great post...


  5. Terrific teaching, Carole! I am constantly arguing with my bank manager that we don't need more credit because we don't need more of anything. It's a seductive slippery slope when the world starts waving these bright, sparkly things in my face. I like the fact that the biggest competition on our road is over who put out the fewest garbage bags and the most recycle bins. (Yes, it is the tail end of the dragon but we're talking rural Ontario here. I'll take what I can get!)

  6. David - haven't explored Good Guide to much yet but it does look awesome.

    Leslie - Sounds like you could have given the talk. Annie talked about both the corporate greed and the thrifty life. I too enjoy my creature comforts, but I hope without too much waste.

    Sharmon- Yes, this makes lots of sense and takes the deeper view. Why are we medicating ourselves with stuff??

    Lynne - It's interesting how when things get up on our radar, it seems so clear when we see them. It is sad really to create all this comfort and never have time to sit down and enjoy it. I think after a while It even gets hard to know how to sit down. I feel like cities really breed this cycle of desire and acquire. Our conscious move to the country has been great. All the "stuff" is just not in your face so much.

    Genju - I remember a quote by the Dalai Lama where he said, after a number of days of driving by shops in NYC with all this fancy looking stuff in the windows, that even he wanted it, even though he didn't know what most of it was! I know when I go to the city I see all these nice clothes and think I might like them and then I think, where would I wear that to?

  7. Hey to see your sketchbook page! and I love your share...I remember the first time I watched the 'Story of Stuff' video and thought it brilliant as a teaching tool. How excellent that you spent time up close and personal with this most important 'save ourselves from ourselves' topic.

    I think of this place (earth) as a school and we have so much to learn and share...some of us are in kindergarden and some of us are in the ashram and some of us are partying down...and stuff is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we're all looking and hungry for...learning how to really see all living beings as sharing a one and only journey together with joyfulness and harmlessness...there's an evolutionary leap.

    On another note...I'm so happy it lloks like I can come into your comment zone once again!!

  8. Merci 33 - Great you could comment again. I played with a few settings but didn't do anything major. I noticed on another blog that the owner was having comment issues so perhaps blogger has done something??

    Love this idea of regarding us as all in school, this feels like a less charged, kinder way to think of the issue. Sharmon also mentioned the deeper issue of stuff in her comments. I think this is true. Maybe we have a religion of stuff in the western world as a common uniting factor??

  9. Very fun to have a peek inside your sketchbook!
    Lovely to be back and catching up with you here after our travels. After two weeks away from my studio, I'm itching to dig into some creative time now... aftet the jet lag wears off. ;o) My husband & I have been working towards a more minimal way of living--less "stuff", spending more wisely on what we need, but spending less in general. Both of us being creative people our stuff tends toward tools, books, etc. But I don't like a lot of clutter or excess of things. Many seem to shop to fill gaps in their lives. The phrase "retail therapy" sadly means something to some people. There seems to be a void some can't fill, or don't know how to, or with what. Being more in tune with the heart's natural calling, and more people coming together as a community, relinquishing the power of "things" will help heal many. I read several blogs that embrace the minimal & mindful way of living--it's inspiration. May it be the wave of a better future.