It’s never been easier to buy exactly what we want the moment we want it. Thanks to ever-creepier technology, you can see an ad for a new product you were just talking about and, two clicks later, it’s en route to your house. But if you’ve ever found your new purchase didn’t noticeably improve your life, there may be a psychological explanation. “There is a formula that I find useful in conceptualizing happiness,” says Tim Bono, a psychology lecturer at Washington University in St. Louis and author of the book Happiness 101: Simple Secrets to Smart Living & Well-Being. “Think of it as a quotient of what we have divided by what we want.”
One issue of modern life, though, is that it’s easy to convince ourselves of new wants so often that the denominator in Bono’s equation gets really big—and that throws the entire equation out of whack. This is especially true on social media, where we’re tempted at every turn to compare our lives with those of strangers’, with perfectly curated images suggesting they have it all figured out. So how do we combat this feeling of inadequacy?
“One very simple thing we can do is incorporate more of a gratitude practice into our everyday lives,” Bono says. “Doing so shines a spotlight on the numerator in that formula, emphasizing the things we already have that we may have taken for granted.”
Minimalism can help. When you get rid of what no longer serves you, you also create a standard for whatever newness (be it a plant, friend, or practice) you bring in. For instance, approaching clothes or furniture with intentionality—knowing exactly where and how each piece will fit into your life—pushes you to make more-meaningful purchases rather than buying compulsively. “Before you consider moving into a bigger house or adding more items to your wardrobe, think instead, ‘What can I do with what I’ve already got?’” Bono says. “There’s something really wonderful about extracting meaning from what we already have and chipping away at the excess.”
And don’t forget how useful meditation can be in leading you down a more grateful path. “Meditation helps us to identify all of the distracting thoughts, the anxieties, the emotions that can interfere with our ability to carry out daily tasks,” Bono says. The practice is helpful when it comes to minimalism, too, he says, pointing to tactics such as targeted ads and influencer marketing, which aim to convince us we’d be happier if we just bought more. “The practice of meditation is ultimately about teaching ourselves that we don’t have to follow every little thing that tries to get our attention. We don’t have to buy everything that Amazon shows us. We don’t have to necessarily believe every thought and emotion trying to make a play into our minds,” he says.
So the next time you start worrying about your home décor or whether your clothes are last season, focus on your breath, allow the thoughts in, and then direct them away to focus on gratitude. Next step: Enlightenment.
From March/April 2021