Wanting What We've Got

half full half empty SHORTER.jpg

Chalice lighting

Each of us arrives here from lives full of challenge and promise -
Of sorrow and joy.
Of apathy and love.
May the light we have kindled show to us more clearly
The wonders of our lives,
So we may come to treasure the lives we live.
And find happiness - not in some other place and distant future -
But right where we stand,
Here and now.

Reading: Can You Imagine? by Mary Oliver

For example, what the trees do
not only in lightning storms
or the watery dark of a summer's night
or under the white nets of winter
but now, and now, and now - whenever
we're not looking. Surely you can't imagine
they don't dance, from the root up, wishing
to travel a little, not cramped so much as wanting
a better view, or more sun, or just as avidly
more shade - surely you can't imagine they just
stand there loving every
minute of it, the birds or the emptiness, the dark rings
of the years slowly and without a sound
thickening, and nothing different unless the wind,
and then only in its own mood, comes
to visit, surely you can't imagine
patience, and happiness, like that.

Message (part 1) by Rev Andy Pakula

We’re at the end of the first of three months of our theme on happiness. What makes us happier? What prevents happiness? Today, I want to talk about the relationship between happiness and stuff - acquiring things in an effort to make ourselves happier.

I’ll start with a confession - and I feel like I may be one of the worst sinners among us on this and that most of you are - I like stuff. I buy stuff and it makes me happy - well - for a moment it makes me happy.

When I got my newest smartphone, the Galaxy S8 - I felt really happy. I even like saying ‘Galaxy S8.’ I was especially happy when I first got it. And then I realised just how much work it was to set everything up and the happiness dropped a bit. The happiness level dropped off quickly as the phone slowed down. And the happiness stopped dead when - just the other day - I heard an advert saying that…  the Galaxy S9 was available. What!! I only have the S8 and now there’s the S9!? The S9 is faster, the screen is brighter, the battery lasts longer and - yes - there’s that ‘new "Super Speed" Dual Pixel sensor and a lens with a physically variable aperture’ allowing much better low light photography and don’t forget the ‘960 fps super slow-motion mode...for a super-dramatic effect.’  Not just dramatic; super-dramatic! I can’t look at my pathetic S8 in the same way anymore. What is the point of a phone that can’t do super slow-motion video for a super-dramatic effect? Pitiful!

This is just one example of my relationship with stuff. Whether it’s dog toys, cooking gear, shoes, electronics, or whatever, I crave stuff for the burst of happiness it provides and then, when that wears off, I am on the web looking for more and better stuff. In fairness to all of us who turn to stuff and having more and more stuff, we live in a market-driven capitalist economy. If we don’t want stuff the whole system falls apart. And it’s not enough to want one great phone, we have to want the latest phone. We have to want and to want more.

Reading: 'Mind Wanting More' by Holly Hughes

Only a beige slat of sun
above the horizon, like a shade pulled
not quite down. Otherwise,
clouds. Sea rippled here and
there. Birds reluctant to fly.
The mind wants a shaft of sun to
stir the grey porridge of clouds,
an osprey to stitch sea to sky
with its barred wings, some dramatic
music: a symphony, perhaps a Chinese gong.
But the mind always
wants more than it has -
one more bright day of sun,
one more clear night in bed
with the moon; one more hour
to get the words right; one
more chance for the heart in hiding
to emerge from its thicket
in dried grasses - as if this quiet day
with its tentative light weren't enough,
as if joy weren't strewn all around.

Message (part 2) by Rev Andy Pakula

You have no doubt seen the same stories I have. Famous film stars or other luminaries visit people in the poorest places on earth and they are photographed with the happy poor people - happy despite being poor. And perhaps we think that stuff and the means to get stuff has no connection with happiness. Perhaps we even conclude that we’d be happier if we were to change places with those people - that it is our relative affluence that somehow undermines our happiness.

The data on relative happiness are not so clear. It’s hard to measure happiness - it’s subjective and the measures don’t translate so well from a wealthy developed culture to one where severe poverty is the norm. One interesting observation though is that - once people have enough to survive - there is not much difference in happiness between rich and poor across countries. That is, a middle class British person is about as happy as a poor person in a very poor country. So that starts to suggest that absolute wealth is not well-connected with how happy we are per se. But when you compare happiness across people of different means in the same country, there is more of a difference - especially if the poor can see how the more affluent live.

I live a very comfortable life. I live in a great area and in a flat that is large by London standards. I’m happy with this. But I remember going to a party at a home in a very expensive part of London. It was a mansion. And suddenly my home started to look look worse than my outmoded Galaxy S8 - shabby and cramped. Comparing is an enemy of happiness. The same place that had seemed lovely could quickly appear inadequate when something better came into view.

We can come to be happy with the life we live if we are not confronted with how much better some others have it. The challenge, then, is to learn to want what we have - rather than to continually strive to have everything we could possibly want. Even if we could get what we want, it would only make us happy very briefly before that happiness would fade in the face of the next thing or even just boredom.

Timothy Miller - the author of a wonderful book called How to Want What You Have - suggests that our craving for more and more stuff - is deeply embedded in our genetics. If any ancestors had arisen in our evolutionary history who would be happy with a modest amount of food or possessions or power or love, they would have lost out in competition to the individuals who instinctively wanted more, more, more! The genes that produce that satisfied feeling would have disappeared from the gene pool. And so, he says: “We are all the descendants of many thousands of generations of people who were instinctively driven to keep striving for more wealth, more status, and more love throughout their lifetimes, regardless of how much they had already achieved…The great problem modern humans must come to terms with is that all people instinctively desired limitless wealth, love, and status.”

Miller adds that these tendencies are especially insidious because we are unaware of them. We just feel we are doing what comes naturally - not that our antiquated genetic programming is running us away from happiness. We just want to get a little bit more wealth, a little bit more status… our wiring convinces us that the satisfaction we crave is in reach with just a bit more stuff. So, here we are wired to want more in a world that dangles ever more shiny new stuff in front of us with the promise of happiness. We crave more and more and find ourselves unable to let go of that craving even as it traps us and makes us unable to seek the things that bring true happiness.

True happiness can come about when we learn to both let go of the striving for more stuff and to learn to love what is already in our grasp. There is always something out there that looks better. It might even be better. It might even make us happier - briefly.

Miller invites us to try to walk through our lives imagining that we have been lucky enough to have been placed on the universe’s one pleasure planet. Imagine, he says, that you have earned the amazing privilege of living here where there are green leaves blowing in the breeze. You have been granted the gift of being in a world where such a thing as love exists to warm you. When we bring that kind of appreciation and gratitude to our lives, we begin to understand the beauty around us and the wealth of blessings we have received. We begin to recognize the cravings for more as a side to ourselves that must be gently kept aware of the true nature of treasure. Doing this means working against our genetic programming - programming that pushes us away from true happiness. It takes practise and determination, but there is great happiness to be gained giving up on getting what we want and learning to want what we’ve got.

Closing Words

Go peacefully in this world.
Live into its beauty and wonder,
Loving it in the moment you have been given.
Being so filled by what you encounter,
That you need never want for more.