Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Materialism

We get pleasure out of using the things we own.

I have been thinking about materialism lately. I regularly find myself in the dorm kitchenette with my friends, not-really helping them cook, definitely helping them eat, and then doing most of the cleaning to assuage my conscience, and taking happiness from the fact that we bought chopsticks for use among ourselves and have a well-stocked personal pantry. My roommate has always gone dancing on the weekends but I see my participation as becoming more of a regular occurrence, and I find that I look forward to wearing my one dress to the contra dances.

All of this is somewhat strange to me because I am not usually one who cares about things. But I am recognizing an awakening streak of materialism in myself, and it is taking this form: I want to own the things I need in my day to day life.

Over spring break I began to fantasize about what my life will look like in the future. I do this reasonably frequently, but until quite recently I have never thought in terms of "stuff." When I was in high school thinking about college, I never planned my ideal dorm room or anything; I thought in terms of classes and activities and stressing out, of course, about where I would make my new life.

But I've been compiling a list of things, physical objects, that I want in my future. Professional clothes including a pair of pro-looking shoes that don't kill my feet. Different kinds of tea. My trusty water boiler. My own set of bowls, plates, silverware, chopsticks. A bandana. Enough kitchen implements that I can cook for myself. An index card catalog of recipes that I can make reliably. Running shoes. My good headphones. A sturdy and easy to carry laundry basket. A lightweight but sturdy bike, only if I live in a bikeable area. Dresses in which to go dancing. Weather-appropriate clothing. Playlists. A library card and bookbag. Canvas bags of appropriate dimensions for grocery shopping.

Looking over this list, what stands out to me is how utterly normal and domestic all of these things are. Yet the thought of having them, and having them in a small apartment all my own in some small city where I can be a young professional, makes me really happy.

We get pleasure out of using the things we own.

If we do not have the things we need, we are frustrated. I forgot my detergent at home when I came back from Spring Break and became happier than the occasion merited when my friends and I made a Safeway run and I could pick up some more. Not having the right clothing for the weather is a good way to make yourself irked.

On the flip side, if we have things we don't need, that situation can weigh on your consciousness. Actually, maybe I can word that stronger: not having things that we can use regularly irks us. I used to wear scarves a lot but do not do so anymore in college, and the scarf collection that used to make me happy now makes me a little annoyed (I'll probably wear them a lot this summer, though). I did not bring all my clothes with me to college and when I go home and see the drawer that has all the stuff I left behind, I get annoyed. There are tea bags I haven't used from last quarter and they are somewhat annoying to me as well.

I enjoy being at college. Having a limited set of clothing, because that means I wear everything and don't feel as though I am wasting it. Having a lot of tea that I can offer to people, though I think next year I might direct my tea acquisition to the staples that I cannot do without (mint tea is optional in the winter but not in warmer months; jasmine green tea and Earl Grey are necessities). Less stuff means more use of each individual item means more enjoyment per item.

Once upon a time I'd rather keep my cake than eat it, but now I think that preservation is not half so joyful as use. Consumption is not the same as overconsumption and is not the same as consumerism. My roommates and I like our chopsticks because we can use them to eat delicious food. We would not be happy if we had a very nice set of chopsticks that could not be used. Eating, dressing, etc are going to happen anyway; I see it as a good strategic move to make the daily tasks somewhat brighter by making the implements of such more pleasing to you.

Getting the things you need, using them in a way that lets you do what you want or that elevates the daily actions into something more special, makes you happy. So does letting go of the things you no longer need and passing them on to people who will need them.

We get pleasure out of using the things we own.

In fall quarter, the professor of my Ten Things class spoke in the final lecture about materialism. We humans are physical beings. We cannot cut ourselves off from our stuff, so we must embrace our stuff and try to figure out the best way (the happiest, the most responsible) of living with and through it.

What that means, in practical terms, is that getting things that suit you that you will use in daily tasks is the biggest multiplier for increasing enjoyment of stuff. This applies in a lot of areas: I've been grappling with the issue of clothing and personal style here for some years, and what I always come back to is that owning and wearing clothes that express your identity is the way to go, whatever that is. I like wearing collared shirts and dark colors because it suits who I am.

Food consumption is a new topic for me, since I've never before been interested in cooking. But I think that a way that this may play out is that I could just get my plates and cups and utensils from home, but I think it would make me happier to have my own stuff. Which is shading alarmingly close to consumerism, but I would like the chance to use my stuff as a way of expressing my preferences. I do not like this tendency in myself, because it is cheaper and more practical to use what is already at hand. But when I am a young professional living on my own, I would like to, for the most part, have *my* stuff.

We get pleasure out of using the things we own?

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EDIT (added 04/19/2015): Related links.
Unravel: How India recasts the clothes the West throws away, directed by Meghna Gupta (video)
A Luxurious Life, by Theodora Goss (blog post)

As a university student, I found myself reading the Goss article with some envy because I do not have extra lightbulbs on hand, and cannot justify having nice things. On the other hand, it does give me something to look forward to: reaching a point in my life where I have enough shelves for all my books, when I can establish myself in a more-or-less permanent home with all the necessities.

The video prompted a different set of emotions. One was a materialistic urge to look at clothes (this is a weird feeling for me). The other, stronger feeling was that we get pleasure out of using the things we own. The only clothes that bring me happiness are the ones I wear regularly that let me, as I said above, express who I mean to be. As an action item this means that when I get home for the summer I need to put a lot of old clothes in a bag and donate them, and perhaps acquire other clothing that I need.

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