Since the 2008 financial crisis, a lot has been said about the so-called top 1%, but what many middle-class people in economically advanced countries don’t realize is that they could well be part of the top 1% of the world.
I recently read that with assets of around half a million dollars, this is enough to put one into the top 1% of the world in terms of wealth and lifestyle.
And just owning a fridge puts you ahead of 75% of the world in terms of wealth. It’s straightforward to fall into the trap of thinking that the rest of the world lives the same as you do when that is simply not the case.
Even when we look at something as ubiquitous as Facebook (which I no longer have), only a couple billion or so out of the seven billion people today have it.
While perhaps this is slightly immoral, I take a lot of comfort in knowing that I belong to the top few percent in the world in terms of wealth, because it makes me realize how stupid I am when I am pine after material goods that I don’t need and wish that I had more money than I have at the present moment.
I’ve already got it better than most, yet I sometimes find that I am still not happy.
It’s an absurd situation to be in, and yet I know that I am not alone, the reason why countries with larger economies suffer from much higher rates of depression is that once we have it good, we want it great, and the human instinct for desire, if left unchecked, is all-consuming.
There are videos of American teenagers crying because their parents didn’t buy them the right car for their sixteenth birthday. Not that they didn’t get a car, just the exact car they wanted.
These children are not thankful that they have parents, lived to see their sixteenth birthday, received a car for their birthday, or any of the other far more important things that they take for granted. No, they are upset because they received an Audi instead of a BMW.
This, perhaps, is the very definition of how we shouldn’t live. Basing our happiness on external material goods is probably the worst possible thing you can do for your psychological health.
I once lost my two film cameras, and by the end of the same day, I realized that while yes, I had lost two film cameras, I gained something far better, the experience of dealing with a material loss and being undisturbed by it. I actually ended up enjoying the fact that I wasn’t letting the loss get to me, and continued my life entirely as usual – except with a more robust lock on my front door.
No amount of material goods will ever satisfy you if you are not satisfied right now, in the present moment. A computer will not make you happy, neither will a car, nor will a phone, jewelry, a house, or even a lot of money.
I learned a great technique from reading Buddhist and Stoic texts by breaking things down to their component parts to see exactly what they are.
For instance, if we take the iPhone, which is something that many people want to own. I have owned one for about a year, and I am convinced that if it broke or was stolen or was lost, I would be completely fine. Would I repurchase another one? Sure, I think it’s a wonderful tool, and I also love to be able to take my work with me without needing to carry a computer.
So when some people get upset because either they can’t afford one, or their parents won’t buy it for them, etc, etc, it’s ridiculous, because an iPhone is just a bunch of metal, plastic, silicone, and glass components arranged into a package with some computer code stored inside and the ability to connect to the internet.
I mean, we don’t desire the individual components inside the iPhone, do we? No one goes around: “Oh, I wish I just had the M3 motion co-processor inside the latest iPhone, then my life would be complete.”
And badly wanting the iPhone in its entirety is just wrong, and just as stupid.
Our attitude should be: If we can have it, great, if not, no problem. And when we have it, we should keep in mind that it can be taken away at any time. Either quite literally by other people, or purely by a chance accident or malfunction.
So this essay is a reminder to be grateful for what we already have and cultivate our reasoning faculty to understand that we are already fortunate. Anything extra is just the icing on the cake.
So take a deep breath, and realize that you’ve just experienced the ultimate luxury.