This essay by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi rocked my world today. It's an attempt to answer the question of why so many of us have turned to materialism as the factor that motivates most of our lifestyle decisions (how we spend our time and money), even while we would say that we valued experiences, relationships, accomplishments and other non-material goals. I'm tempted to quote the entire article, but this will do for a taste:
"Thus evolution has built two contradictory motivations into our nervous system: pleasure, which is the well-being we feel when eating, resting and procreating; and enjoyment, which is the exhilarating sensation we feel when going beyond the requirements of survival (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993; Ryan and Deci, 2000; Waterman, 1993). Pleasure is a powerful source of motivation, but it does not produce change; it is a conservative force that makes us want to satisfy existing needs, achieve comfort and relaxation. It is the motivation that makes us look for material resources to improve the quality of life – after all these are scarce and everyone wants them, so they must be valuable. The concreteness of material goals also makes them seem more real than more complex goals. But the improvement that money, power, and comfort produce is often simply that of removing momentarily the anxiety we all experience when confronting mortality and finitude. 'More stuff' promises security and comfort, even when the benefits are short-lived and we need ever more stuff to regain equanimity in the face of the slings and arrows inherent in living. There is nothing wrong with seeking pleasure in material goals, but individuals for whom it becomes the main reason for living are not going to grow beyond what the genes have programmed them to desire."So pleasure, in this sense, does not equal or lead to happiness. We get pleasure from a new toy or outfit, but it probably doesn't contribute much to our long-term happiness. The activities that are more likely to yield more lasting happiness tend to be more challenging and connect us to the people around us.
My interest in this all stems from my naive belief that if people could design lifestyles for themselves that were more closely aligned with their deeply held values, they would be less materialistic, watch less TV, work on more meaningful projects, spend more time with their loved ones and contribute more to their communities. Wouldn't the act of deciding in advance (design) how to best integrate the many strands of your future lifestyle choices help us engage in our lives to a greater degree and focus more attention/time/energy/money on the things that matter?