Compare and Despair?

Anyone who knows me knows what a big fan I am of minimalism and the simple life. For lots of reasons I think they are the key to happiness for the average person. I am increasingly shocked by this generation’s status quo of consumerism to the extent that it develops an inability to derive happiness from things other than well… things.

Both at Northwoods, and in my personal life, I adhere to a policy of choosing very carefully what things I surround myself with. I have found that most people find themselves perplexed by the way that I choose to live my life. This usually leads to a very good conversation about how we all choose to live our lives. What I have found is that most people don’t really think about it… at all!

I think to some extent its good to not think about how you live. In its own way, that is a simple way to live. In regards to consumer items, how often do we think about what we purchase? Most of us seem to just go about our days swiping our credit cards for anything that our hearts desire. We sit in our living rooms surrounded by thousands of dollars’ worth of gadgets we rarely use, our curbsides adorned every week with “trash” which we purchased not that long ago and thought for sure would bring us happiness.

So why is this a problem? I first want to defend myself from the folks that think I’m too fringe with my minimalism and simple living. I am not a luddite, I buy things, I spend money, I live what I consider to be an amazing life. That being said, I have found that technology often makes my life more complicated, not “easier”. I buy things that I need, and rarely that I “want”. I am not one of these people who will say things like “money does not buy happiness”. I think finances are incredibly important and money CAN bring you happiness. The reason I think the opposite mindset and lifestyle choices are a problem is two-fold. People under 35 in our country are flat BROKE, and I have seen first-hand what happens to people who are in a constant state of wanting things, and it isn’t good.

The Objective

According to most studies, the savings rate of the American population is roughly 5.5%. Some reading this will think that is a good percentage, others will be appalled by it, nearly everyone will have a different idea as to the reason why it is that rate. If you look at the savings rate of Americans 35 and under (The millennial generation) its -2%… You read that right -2%. At the risk of going into a personal finance blog at this point, I will allow you to draw your own conclusions on the financial ramifications of this, but will instead stick to my expertise on the psychology of this. You see, plain and simple, millennials are perpetually in a state of spending more than they have. On what you ask? Look around in their lives and you will not have to look far to find your answer. The answer is they borrow money (often on credit cards with interest rates as high as 29%) so they can purchase well… everything!

The Subjective

I don’t place blame on people for finding themselves in this financial prison. Instead I look at the reasons why. I have found in a decade of working with young people, and hundreds of clients, that there are two primary reasons why they do. Their parents often provide them with a very comfortable environment. Again, I do not place blame on this since the most common statement I hear from parents is “I wanted to provide my children with everything I didn’t have”. Although this is well intended, the pendulum often swings the other way with the next generation and their children find themselves lacking drive to improve their lives financially. Instead they drive forward with an intention to maintain their spending habits and corresponding lifestyle they are accustomed to. Unfortunately, they lack the earning power and inherent appreciation for what they have that their parents earned. This creates an unrealistic, pessimistic, and financially stressed future for those experiencing it… unless they change their perception of such things in their life or are financially supported by their parents, which defeats the purpose of life skills counseling to a large degree.

Change Your Perception

Like most things, psychology is an exercise in changing your perception/mindset. In this particular problem-set, it is important to shift one’s perception to that of a simple life, lacking most “wants” in order to drive a better understanding of the difference between “needs” and “wants”. Once this is established (generally, like most habits, taking 90+ days to do so) people must go through a process of positively reinforcing themselves. They need to give themselves the proverbial “carrot”. I assure you, there is nothing more remarkable than seeing the evolution of a mind stuck on unending consumerism, to that of someone who earns something themselves and has utter appreciation for a seemingly simple item or service.

Reset your mindset

I practice what I preach. You can call me many things, but hypocrite is not one of them. I often need to “reset” my own mindset when I find myself slipping towards consumerism or living a complicated life. I’ve been known to do things like sleep in my car for a few days in order to stop my mindset of “I wish we had a bigger house”, or see how many places I can ride my bike or walk for a week instead of driving my car to reset the mindset of “I should buy a new car”. I like relativity. I firmly believe that it’s important to challenge yourself frequently. I also think it’s important to do so in a way that gives you pause in your life and makes you think about a part of the way you are choosing to live it. When you have two realities to compare, you see the difference between the two and can better appreciate what you do have! Often times people make the assumption that having more is always the better option and we should strive to achieve this. However true happiness can be devired from a life of simplicity, even more than a life of endless things. 

Challenge Yourself

Have you ever challenged yourself to have a sense of relativity in an area of your life? If you haven’t I suggest you do it. Even if you have to start small, take the time to do it. Maybe you can disconnect your cable for a month to see what that is like. Maybe you can avoid spending a penny on eating-out for a month. See what it does for you when you give yourself the chance to see the difference between the two. I guarantee you, you will appreciate CNN like you never have before, and that “mediocre” Thai food that is nearly impossible to make at home will taste amazing!

Rory K. McLaughlin, CEO