1st-world problem: How buying more gives you less

Does happiness lie beneath?

Story highlights

  • The best way to keep up socially has traditionally been through the ritual display of the stuff we own, writes James Wallman
  • He says this is good in that we are driven to increase living standards and bad in that not having stuff says failure
  • Wallman says spending less time and money on goods and more on experiences brings more happiness

James Wallman is a journalist, trend forecaster, speaker, and author. His latest book, "Stuffocation," is published by Penguin. Follow @jameswallman on Twitter The views contained in this commentary are solely the author's.

(CNN)A friend of mine -- let's call him Pete -- works in the City of London. Has done for the best part of the last 20 years. He's done alright too. He has two homes, one in France, one in London, though for tax purposes he's based in the Channel Islands.

He has all the things most people would ever desire. He never asks how much things cost. He shops for stuff the day before the sales start. I'm not joking. He did that in December.
    James Wallman
    He has a collection of tasteless designer trainers made from exotic animal skins and with lots of shiny bits that cost from £300 per pair upwards. He buys paintings in the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition. I don't mean the small affordable pieces.
    But Pete doesn't feel rich. He's not satisfied at all. He was telling me recently about the time he'd dropped his son off at another banker's Notting Hill home for a birthday party.
    "So I went downstairs to the nanny's entrance," he said, "and right there on the wall, next to where the kids were hanging up their coats, were two Andy Warhols!"
    This display of a 20th century icon's prints were proof that these people had made it. And just like that, his collection of Royal Academy original paintings seemed shabby.
    For a while I thought of this as the "Parable of the City," but I've come to realize it's true for all of us. It's the story of our materialistic consumer society. Just as the have-nots aspire to catch up with the haves, so the haves look up to the have-yachts. It doesn't matter who you are, you still want to catch up with, keep up with, and get ahead of the Joneses.
    It's funny how people think of this idea as bad today. But keeping up is perfectly natural. All animals, including humans, like to establish their status in the social hierarchy.
    To let others know their place in the pecking order, birds of paradise show off their day-glow tail feathers. Lions shake their thick, dark manes. Howler monkeys howl. And in our materialistic consumer society, the best way to keep up has traditionally been through the ritual display of the stuff we own, like designer watches, handbags, shoes, and Andy Warhol originals.
    This is both good and bad. Good, in that our materialistic system has leveraged this inbuilt desire to keep up to create the most incredible increase in standards of living in human history.
    But also bad, because in today's meritocratic society having stuff signifies success and, equally, not having stuff says failure. As a result, we are not only smugly or painfully aware of who is above or below us, but also that we can clamber up or slip down the rankings at any moment. It is like living in an immense, stomach-churning session of Snakes and Ladders, where the game never stops and where everybody is a competitor.
    To play this paranoia-inducing game -- and it is a game we all play -- millions of us spend too much time worrying about our place in the pecking order, and scheming to get up the ladders and avoid the snakes. The result is millions of us left wanting, even though we have pretty much all we desire.
    There is a way to solve this, to step out of the game a little, if you like. It is very simple and it requires only one very small change in your behavior: spend ever less of your time and money on material goods, and ever more on experiences instead.
    Do this and you will be happier for all sorts of reasons. One of those is at the heart of the "Parable of the City." Material goods are easier to compare than experiences, which means you are more likely to be aware of their status value, how far forward they take you on the social Snakes and Ladders board, or how far back they make you slide. And while experiences are comparable -- your holiday in Mauritius versus my camping holiday in Wales, for instance -- it is a fuzzier comparison, and that takes our focus away from status.
    Besides, your holiday may have cost more, and been more fabulous in all sorts of ways, but did you have a better time? And is chilled Champagne at an Indian Ocean beach bar better than a warm beer in a pub on the Gower Peninsula?
    So don't bother with trying to fulfill all your material desires. They will only leave you wanting. Instead, shift what you desire from things to experiences. You'll have a better, more fun way to shake your tail feathers, and you'll be happier.