Possessed by your own possessions? GLP on owning all that stuff

Anecdotal evidence just isn’t enough when it comes to getting on my GLP list, but I can’t resist a little warm up before getting to the main event. Image

Our departure from London to Cornwall (as mentioned previously in “Let’s get personal etc.…) may have seemed impulsive even precipitous to a casual observer – one minute we’re living in yuppiedom and the next hotfooting it to Cornwall, doing a downsize, and in the process shedding lots and lots of our possessions.  In retrospect, I realise that my mental “back-room boys” had been making a few observations and coming to some conclusions all on their own.  I do remember thinking that the people who lived in the great big houses in Wimbledon, and for whom we often did renovation work, didn’t seem any happier than the woman who lived in a council flat and came in to do my ironing.  I know very well I’m not going to get any prizes for making that observation.  We’ve all heard “Money can’t buy you happiness” along with “The best things in life are free” countless times, but in our modern lives we are constantly bombarded with the opposite message and, as we know, many of us opt to take the advertisers word for it and ignore the folk wisdom.

So can we put “Have fewer things” on the GLP list?  It would be tempting to let that one slip through without further examination but that would be cheating.  Remember the aforementioned criteria?  Science, common sense, intuition.  I think I could safely say that my intuition does, and did, tell me that curtailing my materialism would be a good idea and so it would seem that the idea passes at least one of the criteria.  That’s not enough to get this on the list though. GLPs do not exist by intuition alone.

So what does the science say?  There have been a great many studies relating to materialism over the years, the conclusions of which have led materialism to become a bit of a dirty word.  There is an interesting study, carried out in 2003 by Profs Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich which concludes that people who spend their money on experiences (I am assuming that means holidays, days out, activities and so on) are more likely to be happy than those who spend their money on material goods.  (For more on this, go to http://www.spring.org.uk/2008/01/experiences-beat-possessions-why.php)

According to Dr Steve Taylor, Senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, in relation to materialism in the developed world “Our appetite for wealth and material goods isn’t driven by hardship, but by our own inner discontent.”  I don’t want to flood this blog with borrowed quotes, but I don’t think I could say this better so I’m quoting Taylor again. “We look to external things to try to alleviate our inner discontent. Materialism certainly can give us a kind of happiness – the temporary thrill of buying something new, and the ego-inflating thrill of owning it afterwards. And we use this kind of happiness to try to override – or compensate for – the fundamental unhappiness inside us.” For more – http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-the-darkness/201203/the-madness-materialism

It is hard to find any research that suggests that owning more things equals more happiness.  Of course, that only covers the science as it relates to the individual.  There is a whole other side to owning less that is perhaps more important still.  Let’s not forget our groaning environment.  Even if you don’t consider yourself an environmentalist, it is very hard to argue that consuming more resources than the earth can replenish is a good idea.  There are thousands of articles, blogs, scientific papers and more that say, in a nutshell, we’re using too much stuff and we need to stop that NOW.  So “Have fewer things” ticks another box.

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As for the common sense arguments for minimising our possessions, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that, left unchecked, the pursuit of happiness through the acquisition of material possessions leads to a never ending cycle of buy, little boost, big come down.  We haven’t even addressed the issue of debt (there’s a GLP lurking, surely?).

I’ve always liked the quote from William Morris “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” and I’ve used that as a yardstick by which I measure the ebb and flow of the material objects about our home and a handy way to live with this particular GLP.

If you think that paring down the things you have in your home and the way you approach buying is difficult, I recommend reading the brilliant blog by Joshua Becker – http://www.becomingminimalist.com/becoming-minimalist-start-here/

So here are my final words for today.  I think we’ve pretty much got the science, the common sense and the intuition covered but there is one other thing that needs to be mentioned here. It’s simple – Clearing all the unnecessary stuff out of my life has truly made me more contented, and happier, and less stressed.  It has left me more space to think not of what I want to buy next, but what I want to do, and even more, what I want to be.  So “putting to one side the ethical and environmental considerations….” it makes for a nicer life. (Oh, and the dusting is easier too).

How the “Win, win , win and then, and then and then” GLP criteria works

So I knew that I couldn’t just put any old random “rules” in the GLP list just because I liked the sound of them.  So many times these days I see people posting stuff on Facebook, – you know the posts I mean, coloured boxes with philosophical content – and doing it pretty much in bulk.  You read the snippet and, without thinking, find yourself nodding in agreement without really thinking properly about what that little nugget really means.  It works on the “knee jerk” as opposed to the “brain work” principle. 

For me, for any ideas to be incorporated into my life they have to fulfil several criteria, not least the aforementioned “win, win, win and then and then etc.” rule.  I remember years ago, when my children were little, having a rather disconcerting conversation with another mother at the school gate.  Her child was rather small and bespectacled and was being bullied by the other kids.  “I’ve told him to just hit them back” she said, and went on to tell me that that was the way she had been brought up. “Yay! Good idea.  Teach those bullies a lesson.  Stand up for yourself”.  Really?

These days we could put “just hit them back” in a coloured box with an image of a little boy whacking a bully and post it on Facebook and I’m pretty sure it’d get likes and shares.  Trouble is, it doesn’t really pass the WWWATATAT test does it?  In fact, give that idea a few seconds thought and it starts to look like a dismal bit of advice to give a child in that situation.  Just a quick “and then” check and the whole idea starts to look a little off.  One result might be that you turn a child with a naturally peaceful disposition into a reluctantly violent one, or that the much bigger bully just goes for a second bigger punch, or that the whole situation just escalates into an ugly schoolyard brawl.  No-one wins. We all know that, in simple terms, this sort of principle has led in the past to many a devastating war involving millions of casualties.   It’s a bad idea, but like many bad ideas can sound pretty good unless you apply a bit of critical thinking. 

Our society is full of bad ideas touted as good and, in my opinion, come in the main from all-pervasive advertising and from religion not to mention the societal norms that are the mutant lovechildren between these two strange parents (and I think that Hollywood schmaltz might be the uncle).  Personally, I take “You are not normal” as a compliment.  A big one. 

If you’ve read any of my previous posts you have probably noticed that, thus far, I may have seemed reluctant to reveal exactly what my GLPs are.  Well here comes a little reveal.  Don’t be disappointed.  The following GLP might seem so prosaic as to be not worth mentioning but please stick with me for a moment as it makes a good illustrator.  

Here’s the little preparatory story…. As a child in the 1960s I was brought up to believe that wasting food was a very bad thing.  We weren’t allowed to leave food on our plates and my mum planned meals on a weekly basis so that shopping had to be carried out with military precision. On one particular occasion, when I was about 8 or 9, at a family celebration, I remember seeing a very alarming sight.  There was a paper plate on the table that contained two half eaten sandwiches (ham and piccalilli) a lump of cake icing and a cigarette butt carelessly ground out in the centre,  the whole thing topped off with a sprinkling of ash.  

To say I was deeply disturbed is no exaggeration.  I only had one reference to go by at that age – don’t waste food – and so I just couldn’t understand what I was seeing.  I had to go and talk to a higher authority and that was my Nana.  Ever to be relied upon for a simple and clear explanation she told me that “people don’t like to seem mean” and also “people sometimes get carried away if something is on offer free of charge”.   This occasion was the earliest time I can remember seeing in action the human tendency to allow social normalcy to override common sense.  So strong is the desire to “fit in” with group that even the most obviously good behaviours and choices are ignored.  I don’t say I thought about this in quite these terms; I was only 8 years old after all, but nonetheless the paper plate image and what it represented played some part in one of my most basic GLPs.  Don’t waste food.

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There are lots of “and then”s  attached to this one.  I’m pretty sure we all know them already.  You waste food and then:

  • You waste money
  • You add to landfill
  • You feel guilty
  • You require more land to be used to service your foody needs
  • You set a bad example if you have children

There are more, but you get the idea.  As for the wins, they are pretty obvious too and are pretty much the opposite of the list above.  All win in fact.

If you happen to be invited to my house to eat you can be pretty certain that I won’t be thinking “I don’t want to look mean”.  I don’t care even slightly about that. I don’t always get it absolutely right and the brown banana has occasionally been my downfall.  As for social normalcy – in this case, I laugh in your face and apply my longstanding GLP.

 

So, let’s get personal and “Funding would be no problem”

This will be my third post and so it’s obvious that I’m pretty much new to this blogging lark.  I’ve got a great in-house critic fortunately and that’s my partner Graham.  He read the first two of my “offerings” and then he said “It doesn’t say much about who you are – people like it if you make it personal” followed by, perhaps an even more important observation, “you’ve not really said exactly what The Good Life Protocol is”. So in this post I’m going to “get personal” and also explain what I mean by GLP. Image

Back in the 1980s we were making quite a lot of money.  We lived in London where we had a shop, a tiling business, a maisonette in Wimbledon, two children, a dog, a nanny, a cleaner and a gas-guzzling car. I was in my 20s and had loads of energy and making money didn’t seem that hard. One afternoon our bank manager – Mr Pinney – turned up at the shop (yes, that really used to happen in those days!) and explained that he’d come to see me because the shop next door had become vacant and as he put it “funding would be no problem if we wanted to expand”.  Instead of feeling pleased or excited, I suddenly felt as if an elephant had just sat down on my chest.

The journey from hippy-dippy teenager to fully fledged business woman had happened by accident and to be honest, I didn’t even plan any of it.  Opportunities and ideas had presented themselves and we had just taken what seemed like the obvious next steps.  At the time and still now, I knew that that visit from Mr Pinney was pivotal.  It caused me to rethink. The effect was immediate and profound.  All I could think, regarding his kind offer of further debt, was that we would be chaining ourselves even more firmly to a life I didn’t really even like that much.  That is not to say that I was unhappy.  I quite liked making deals, doing some legal ducking and diving and even liked doing the books.  It sounds as corny as hell, but I knew there was much more to life.  That same week we put our home, shop and business on the market then took out a map of the British Isles and stuck a pin in it whilst blindfolded.  That’s how we ended up living in Cornwall in a house in a tiny hamlet with a stunning view of the Atlantic.

Anyone who lives in the far West of Cornwall knows that making money down there is pretty hard.  We took a 90% drop in income when we moved from London to Cornwall and I can honestly say it made no difference at all to how happy we were or how easy or difficult our lives were to manage. One thing that move did change was the amount of time we had to think. 

I found that when you are confronted with all that space you seem also to have to confront yourself.  My day to day life was wonderful – I had much more time with my daughters, I could mess about like Felicity Kendal in the 70s sitcom, we could be creative, breathe fresh air and belong to a community.  It was all pretty good. So here is the “but”. There was the “what’s it all about” background hum ever present in my life.  If I were a “born-again” this is where I’d start to talk about hearing god. I didn’t hear god.  God had died for me when I was teenager and there were no holy resurrections for me.

To cut a very long story short I decided that I had to put together my own set of rules to live by.  It was not without humour that I called it the Good Life Protocol.  Though the name has humour I was deadly serious about trying to find a set of values that might help quieten that inner voice and fill the vacuum, and give my life more meaning.  I wanted each idea to fulfil certain criteria.  Although I no longer have the bits of paper, nor the dot matrix print-outs from that dinosaur of a word processor I remember pretty well the spirit, if not the actual list of criteria. 

Science of the day, common sense and intuition each played a large part in the construction of those early values.  It gave me a cohesive set of personal “commandments” to live by and certainly helped me to navigate life more easily and with a better sense of purpose whilst hopefully being a useful member of the human race.  But there is always the danger of becoming smug. I can’t ignore the fact that the sum of human knowledge has increased and changed.  The pressures of life have changed.  Perhaps it’s time to fire up and rethink.

Why a non-existent God still does it better

 

 

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So Victor Hugo said, pretty much, don’t leave a vacuum. All over Facebook I see IFLScience, The Mind Unleashed and the often hilarious atheist satire the gives us all pause and makes us think, trying to fill the vacuum, if not by design, then by default.  Trouble is, it’s so often preaching to the converted. We pass it around our good and smart and virtuous friends and then feel even more good and smart and virtuous.  No harm in that but I fear, for the vast majority of people, these ideas just sail right over their heads, leaving them either completely untouched or just a little irritated that their comfortable world views are being challenged, if they bother to read it.

Richard Dawkins, one of the poster boys for atheism, makes points that I cannot disagree with.  However, nothing I have seen or read from him could replace the simple and very appealing message that the Christian church (and other religions too) have been delivering across the millennia.  God says “Do these good things and get heaven or do these bad things and get hell”.  What we in the GSV (good, smart, virtuous) camp ask of everyone is to think things through very carefully bringing into the equation current ethical and scientific thinking, take on board all the possible consequences of your actions on a personal, local and global scale, balance the negatives against the positives, whilst considering if you care about short, medium or long term effects and then, and only then, might you act with caution. It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it does it?  Good = Heaven, Bad = Hell.  Easy. 

So we live in a secular society.  God’s rules are pretty much gone as are the nice neat (and often wildly contradictory) frameworks for life that come with religion, and we, the good, smart and virtuous, hope that everyone else will drop their unexamined life in favour of adopting a procedure that is complex and shifting and difficult to get your head around.  It’s a tall order.

I’m lucky and I know it.  By an accident of genes I seem to be able to at least attempt making some sense of my life and the choices life presents. I quite like a knotty problem and I’m OK with facing up to reality most of the time.  I think there is a real distaste in the educated world for “imposing” ideas and, even more so, clearly stated values and behaviours on others.  It really jars with our liberal hearts. Choice, freedom and personal fulfilment are where it’s been at. Trouble is, the world is groaning under the strain of over-consumption, amongst other things, and people are searching for meaning and not finding it or else, perhaps worse still, finding it in strange places like Scientology, the Alien Reptile believers club and of course by joining the ranting religious extremists. Whilst Richard insists that you only have to look to science, let go of your superstitions and all will be well, he neglects to include one part of the equation in his calculations.  

God did, and continues to do, very well with the ordinary Joe and Joanna because his rules seem pretty clear and are delivered with authority (as long as you don’t actually read the bible too closely, that is!!).  There is a simple narrative to all the major religions which is easy to follow and offers tasty carrots and well-targeted sticks. Open the door to a Mormon and you’ll get the bullet points in short order.  No thinking required. 

Is it controversial to say that it would appear people rather like to be told what to do??

The “What’s it all about” (Alfie) generation

I read an article on line last night.  It was about red meat, as it happens.  It was pretty much exploring whether red meat is good for you or notImage.  Right at the very beginning it said “putting to one side the ethical and environmental considerations….” and from that point on went on to explore the science specifically relating simply to eating it. Can we really do that?  Can we really just ignore important bits in order to make decisions simpler?  I’ve never found that easy and often wished that I did.  “But I ain’t got me peace of mind – and if you ain’t got that, you ain’t got nothing” said Alfie.  

 

My generation – the late baby boomers – have seen so many changes, and in many cases improvements, in western society but have also been faced with many a practical and moral dilemma.  I started out, growing up in the 60s, with all the normal influences of the day.  I went to church and Sunday school, ate meat and two veg on a regular basis, was told that sex before marriage was, well, just plain wrong and that we’d be eating off paper plates and wearing throwaway knickers before the century was out (and let’s not forget the jet-pack travel arrangements).  It was simple then.  But then came trouble in paradise.

By the time I’d reached my mid teens there were too many things going on in the world for me to simply accept all the old values as they had been presented.  I read Richard Dawkins “The Selfish Gene”, smoked with my hippy friends, watched the news reports about Vietnam and suddenly I could see gaping holes in the fabric of those old beliefs.

Anyone of my generation has also lived through the development of the “Cult of Self”.  It was necessary, I think, to free us from those old ways of thinking.  Back in the day, we were caught in the sticky web of the church, the state and the old ideas of class and gender.  It needed changing, didn’t it.  However, it seems we are now in the age of wilful ignorance – our new freedoms should have led us to a state of increased happiness and to a healthier world.  This seems not to be the case.  Victor Hugo said “In this nineteenth century, the religious idea is undergoing a crisis. People are unlearning certain things, and they do well, provided that, while unlearning them they learn this: There is no vacuum in the human heart. Certain demolitions take place, and it is well that they do, but on condition that they are followed by reconstructions.”  This idea works equally well for the 20th and 21st centuries, when I think the vacuum is all too apparent. 

It was during the 1980s and 90s I began to think about my own “Good Life Protocol” in order to fill the vacuum I felt had been left by my rejecting the “old”.  It means that I cannot “put to one side the ethical and environmental considerations…” and still feel happy about my choices.