how America grew rich, fat and unhappy

During the weekend I spoke to a friend of mine from a Middle Eastern country. We spoke over a huge pile of Legos and the Bert-n-Ernie Garage and a full set of Thomas the Tank Engine trains (although, in all fairness, most were gifts).  He was reminiscing about how he grew up with practically no toys:  he and his brothers made toys out of wire and twine and cans and sticks.  I spoke about my childhood – less simple, but still free for the most part of electronic gadgets.  We watched a Euro 2008 match on satellite TV while we spoke, drank German beer and checked other sports score on my high-speed Internet laptop.  Then my friend lamented the fact that while his mother had managed to support his whole family and grandparents on one salary, it just wasn’t possible anymore.

It is. Take out the imported beer, the satellite TV, the piles of children’s toys, the second car, the computers, the high-speed internet, and so on and it is.  It’s amazing how within the span of one generation we’ve added so many “extras” yet Americans are now working harder than any other industrialized nation – even more than the infamously hard-working Japanese.  I may exempt the Internet from this equation, simply because what I pay for access – a $600 Toshiba laptop and a high-speed cable connection – are worth it in terms of information and learning and entertainment.  Other than that, though, we have added so much to our lives that we’ve lost sight of the fact that we don’t need most of it.

Yet at the same time America is unbearably wealthy by global standards. We have calories (not good ones, but calories nonetheless) available in almost unlimited supply.  You can buy enough Cinnamon Toast Crunch to feed a family of four for a day for $10.  Even the poorest people in America can afford television; and despite the recent increase in gas prices, we still have some of the cheapest gas in the world and almost no-one is too poor to afford a car.

I don’t automatically assume that “having things” makes anyone unhappy, any more than I assume having things DOES make someone happy. Americans are uniquely blessed with a regulatory environment that is still wide-open by global standards, and the remnants of an entrepreneurial spirit that lives on despite 50 years of creep in governmental control.  Yet at the same time a gap has opened up that shows that the materialistic society has limits.  I have made no statistical studies, but I have so many acquaintances who are loaded down with material goods who are desperately unhappy and apprehensive about the future that it seems to be a trend.  I’m not exaggerating, either – these people have possessions that would have convinced me, in my youth, that they were multimillionaires.  So progress has been made in the material world, but something – somewhere – was lost.

I don’t know what the answer is, because the Internet and cable/satellite TV and clever toys and gadgets like MP3 players have not seemed (and that’s the key word) to be EVIL. I enjoy my MP3 player.  Could I live without it?  Of course.  Does it enrich my life?  It sure did today, when I listened to a fascinating interview on it.  But is it part of a slow trickle of gadgets-for-money-for-time that have robbed me of the deliberate life?  That’s something each of us, in the wee hours, have to decide for ourselves.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik

14 comments

  • Chad @ Sentient Money

    This is definitely part of the whole happiness equation or unhappiness in our (Americans) case. The “need” for all this stuff and the use of all this stuff causes us to reduce the most fulfilling part of our lives…human interaction. We spend very little time with our family and extended family, and even less time with close friends. We move across the country for a job that only pays $10k more and in the process we lose our social network.

  • I have been both poor and rich. I prefer to be rich, because happyness is something that is eternal in every one of us. If you are a happy person, you’ll be one no matter what. If you are an unhappy one, then even if you have 100 billion dollars, you wouldn’t be happy. But not having to worry too much aout money, will definitely be good..

  • I think one of the reasons why parents buy all sorts of toys to entertain their kids is that they don’t want to let them out of the house to play by themselves. And the parents have other things to do, so the kids stay home a lot and have tons of toys to play with and watch TV. Times have changed. When I was growing up, my parents didn’t have to hang out and watch us while we were outside playing with other kids. It was safe back then. We played in the neighborhood playground with our neighbors, while mom was home doing chores that needed to be done. She occassionally came out to check on us, though. Nowadays, you have to take kids to the park to play or hang at the playground with them. So,naturally the whole dynamic changed – parents reduce the time kids spend outside.

  • I don’t think it’s the stuff so much as the relationship to stuff. When the stuff starts owning you…

    and @ Bubelah – in my parents’ neighborhood, the kids can still go play and ride bikes on their own, just like I did when I was growing up. And I have friends who grew up in neighborhoods who weren’t able to do that, and now they live in neighborhoods where their kids can (often, the same neighborhood). So it goes in all different directions….

  • I’d have to say another reason parents, grandparents, and other relatives buy so many toys is because it fills a void they think they had in their lives. I’ve known many people who seem to want to right the ways of the world by living through their kids. In reality, most children will make do with whatever is available. And in many cases they will be happier and more creative because they have to be.

    As for American wealth, we have more than any other country in the world… and we owe more than any other country in the world. The majority of even the poorest American families have a place to live, a car (or two or three), air conditioning, refrigeration, color TV, a computer, internet, a microwave and many other items that were luxuries 20 years ago, but are seen as essential in today’s American society. Many people can do with less than they have today. They just don’t think they can (or know how, which is worse).

    It comes down to making conscious decisions about your priorities. IN the end people control much more than they think they do.

  • Actually USA is indeed the largest debtor in the world. But the standard of living has indeed risen very much over the past 100 years. Even poor people today in the US drive cars with A/C, could live at least 70+ years and could afford to eat well. 100 years ago rich people did have cars, but no A/C. They did have medical help, but a virus could have spread and killed them just as easily as the next guy on the street..
    And as for happyness, how can you really measure it?

  • this is certainly true … Americans have also grown lazier …

  • This was a very interesting post…I’ve had a lot of those thoughts before, too. Americans think stuff equals happiness and base so much of their worth on it. I went to Mexico on mission trips with a friend’s church twice in middle school. One year we were in this tiny border town with shanties and literal crack houses. People were cooking peppers on old slabs of metal that used to be roofs and the one toilet in the area was clogged beyond comprehension. There were cages full of birds emitting an awful stench and children ran around dust roads barefoot in tattered clothes. But you know what? The children smiled and played soccer in the street. The parents and grandparents seemed content with their situation. Everyone had nothing but they loved their families and they had such a strong faith in God. I am not religious, but it was inspiring to see how some people can have so few tangible things but have such a positive and happy outlook on life. They knew they didn’t need stuff to be happy. That taught me a lot and I have since always been sensitive about how much money I am willing to spend on certain things. Granted, I have an iPod and digital cameras and a television…I just try not to be too wasteful.

    I think our country really has become reliant on using material goods to assess how happy and well off we are. People think if they win the lottery, their lives will be so much better and they’ll be in the upper class (sorry, doesn’t happen). We work too many hours (and ruin our health and sometimes families) in the process, but for what? I wish our country would take a step back, chill out with the excessive consumerism, and just be happy and work a little less. Like Europeans. Everyone would be so much healthier and we would have more resources to help other countries where people actually go full days without food. Sorry…that’s just the idealist in me 🙂

  • For the record? There are fat people everywhere. I am SO TIRED of people slamming Americans for this. First off, being fat isn’t a character flaw, and much of the time it isn’t even a health problem. (Fact. They found this out for sure two years ago.) Second off, anywhere you can get access to large amounts of carbohydrates, and grain in particular, you are going to see lots of overweight people. They exist in Mexico, they exist in Italy (yes, with their so-called Mediterranean Diet–hello, pasta?), and yes, they even exist in France. There’s a budding field of study called paleopathology in which they have discovered that in the ten thousand years that we’ve had grain agriculture, human health has markedly deteriorated; in fact, only in the mid-20th century has any nation of people regained the average height that the species enjoyed in our hunter-gatherer days. Know why? Advances in medical treatment that made up for bad diet, and knowledge of the role of nutrition which led to supplementation. Go figure.

    Yes, we’re unhappy, and yes we’re in debt, and yes we waste a lot of stuff. But the fat thing happens all over–even in poor countries, if you live an agricultural or industrialized lifestyle, you have to be rotten stinking broke and poor and only eating every couple of days to get away from the weight thing. Which is a significant segment of the population, but doesn’t apply to everyone.

  • I do not equal possessions with happiness, but certainly a friend of mine does. This last month, she spent approximately $52k. Her thought process on the purchases:

    -wanted to buy a RV, realized the maintenance and storage is not worth it. hence decided to rent one for our annual camping trip instead.

    -since renting a RV, maybe she can buy a houseboat instead. found a good deal for a rental, so she rented a houseboat until the end of the year.

    -now that she got the houseboat, it sure would be nice to rent some jetskis to go with it. searching around for jetskis, found a good deal and by one instead.

    -since she got a jetski, she needs a new truck and trailer to tow the jetski. so she wenting shopping on Monday and purchase a new truck and trailer.

    All these purchases have given her much fuel for discussions with her friends. Her though process is just plain scary! And when she asked us to join her for the a weekend of fun at the lake, most of us turn her down because we have other plans. She was really disappointed and hurt.

    I think you have to be content with what you do have to be happy. My husband and I made a pact when we got married to not to upgrade our lifestyle quickly with an increase income. We do not have paid TV, eat out as much, or have as much “toys” as our friends, but sometimes I think we are happier than they are. Even if one of us stop working, we can manage our current lifestyle without too much hardship. I think having that peace of mind is worth more than anything else.

  • @ Dana – As someone who does public health research (particularly nutrition-related), I can tell you that we haven’t found anything “for sure”.

    And “fat” was only mentioned because I believe the phrase goes “rich, fat, and happy” (sooo… it’s a play on words).

  • “no-one is too poor to afford a car.” …….. no one is too poor to finance a car

    Not too many people own a car in America

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  • Good ideas posted with deep thoughts to present.