Of Coupon Codes and Meaning in Life

Karl Marx believed history was shaped by an overarching dialectic—an enduring conflict between the bourgeoisie who owned the means of production and the proletariat who were stuck selling their labor to the capitalist class. I have my own overarching dialectic that I believe shapes family life, religious communities, municipalities, and even nation-states—an enduring conflict between our material and spiritual selves.

In the simplest terms, it’s a battle between our preoccupation with consumer goods that make our lives more convenient and comfortable versus prioritizing family, friends, those in need, and the ethical stewardship our finite natural resources.

My material self routinely gets the better of my spiritual self. I spend too much time shopping online and I recently I purchased an iPhone 6+ and a new car. But I suspect I’m different than a lot of consumers because I’m keenly aware of the battle that rages inside me. I also live well below my means and know my phone and car, as nice as they are, can’t hold a candle to the joy and meaning my wife, family, friends, students, and writing provide.

How ironic that this time of year is marked by numerous sacred religious traditions and we’re more susceptible than ever to mindless materialism. Consumerism trumps contemplation. This manifests itself in many ways, stampeding store customers have to be the most jarring (the increased popularity of online shopping appears to be dampening that phenomenon).

This weekend in Seattle, The Gap and a few other stores were having a “50% off everything in the store” sale. Which got me thinking about a grand experiment in which all of downtown Seattle businesses had simultaneous “100% off everything in the store” sales. Their motto might be, “This stuff was really ill-conceived and is poorly made, ugly, and of no real use, so please, please take it off our hands.” Tens of thousands would jump in their cars and speed downtown, park haphazardly, and run towards the stores with eyes ablaze.

Free man, free! Nevermind that they’d have no real need for the stuff falling out of their overfilled shopping carts. Free man! Nevermind that they wouldn’t have enough room in their dresser drawers, closets, or garages for the stuff. Free! Nevermind that the stuff wouldn’t fill those empty spaces in their lives created by superficial or strained relationships with others.

My spiritual self has convinced my material self to sit out the mania this December. Join me. Help me tilt the balance from the material to the spiritual.

Everything Free Day

Two weeks ago Megan McArdle reviewed a few books on consumption. Early in the review she reveals she recently bought a $1,500 food processor. Who knew one could drop 1.5 large on a food processor?

The Saturday morning after Black Friday my betrothed filled me in on the L.A. shopper who pepper-sprayed several other X-box shopper-competitors before fleeing the scene. The good news is I don’t think anyone was trampled to death in Toys R’ Us this year. On Black Friday I subscribed to consumerreports.org in the a.m. and then spent a chunk of the p.m. shopping for new kitchen appliances at home in my pepper spray-free environment.

I spent part of Thanksgiving Day shopping too. Well, kind of. While watching Ndamukong Suh stomp on a Packer o-lineman, I blew through 90% of the 90 lbs. of newspaper ad inserts. Took everything the labradude had to drag that bad boy to the front door. Who knew Wal-Mart sells decent looking jeans for $10? And a decent Timex Ironman-brand watch for $10? Maybe they won’t stop stomping their suppliers until they can sell everything for $10 or less.

Remember the crazy shopping spree marketing prizes in the 70’s or 80’s? Some lucky winner would get an hour in a grocery store and they’d sprint up and down the aisle frantically loading a few baskets with a little of everything? And we’d watch imagining how much faster we’d go or how we’d be more strategic and target the most expensive goods that take up the least space.

What if Black Friday was “National Reduce Inventory” day and everything was free? Nothing sold out, no servers crashed, perfect availability. What would you have brought home? What about those you live with? Where/how would you have stored everything? How would those new possessions have changed your life? Would you be much happier?

At minimum, I would have ordered a few new kitchen appliances and brought home some of Costco’s most expensive vino, a new bicycle computer, and a McArdle food processor in a new Seal Gray 2012 Porsche 911. Initially at least, I would have been much happier. Among other ripple effects though, I’d have to work more hours to pay for more expensive car insurance and maintenance costs and over the course of a few weeks, months, and years, I probably wouldn’t be any happier at all.

I don’t assume what’s true for me is true for you, but I’m learning the things that make me happiest—friendship, good health, film, literature, exercising in natural settings, writing this blog, helping others—can’t be purchased in a store or ordered on-line. I could spend tons of time and energy shopping in stores and on-line at this time of year, brag about my good bargains, but not improve the quality of my life.

If there’s ever a time of the year for reflecting on this dynamic it’s now. The thrill of even great purchases quickly fades so invest time and energy in the people and things that bring lasting joy.

Related Graham Hill TED Talk titled “Less Stuff, More Happiness”.