The anxiety of property

by Rob Horning

23 August 2006


Every so often, despite devoting almost every inch of column space to the pursuit of money, the business press feels the need to run a concessionary piece about how money can’t buy you happiness. This article about money and happiness, from last Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, seemed to touch a nerve with libertarians and economists around the blogosphere. The article draws on happiness research conducted by behavioral economists and hedonic psychologists and the like to make the usual points about money only providing additional happiness up to the level of material security, at which point the hedonic treadmill (our rapid adaptation to improvements) and comparative dissatisfaction (our inability to keep up with a ever-receding-and-improving cast of Joneses) set in. That’s all familiar stuff, but what seemed to grab everyone’s attention, though (me included), was this quote from professor Daniel Gilbert (whose recent book Stumbling on Happiness collects and elaborates these findings, and had already spurred a similar article in New York magazine a few months ago): “Money itself doesn’t make you happy. What can make you happy is what you do with it. There’s a lot of data that suggests experiences are better than durable goods.” In other words, buying memories, which become more valuable as they get older, is better than buying things, which deterioriate over time, causing their owners great anxiety. That is why it is better to travel or to contrive ways to get together and do things with friends. Owning stuff just gives us the pleasure of watching it decay.

This makes perfect sense to me: I think of all the grief my old laptop has given me over the years—protecting it from viruses, installing software, making network cards work with it, replacing its battery which rapidly lost interest in holding a charge. Now it’s so feeble as to be utterly worthless and it sits in a bag in my closet unused, waiting to be junked. I needed the computer (sort of) for various reasons, but it don’t think of it as having generated a “flow of experiences” for me, as economist Bryan Caplan suggests. If anything it generated the fear he admits to: “whenever I worry about being robbed over vacation, my first thought is the sorrow of seeing my CD shelves empty.” That which is useful isn’t necessarily that which gives pleasurable memories, plus the repetition of experience from goods one owns destroys the singularity of the memories created. Also ownership seems to give us the feeling of having potential experience held in abeyance, which seems to nullify any prior experiences with the thing owned. When I think of the laptop, I think of what must still be done with it, not what great things it let me do in the past; and I think of those future tasks as duties, owed to myself and requiring my effort. I take whatever experience an owned good gives me for granted even before I make that experience happen. In some ways, this is why owning a film on DVD tends to ruin it for me; I never end up watching it even though the idea in acquiring it was that I could watch it over and over again. What pleasure I get from owning the DVD is knowing that I could watch it over and over again but don’t actually have to. Ownership becomes an acceptable substitute for actual experience. (Maybe this is why I’m waiting to get Gilbert’s book out from the library to read it.)

Will Wilkinson offers this defense of experiences over goods:

Two points. (1) Market egalitarianism. Qualitiative differences between cheap and expensive consumer goods is almost nil. There is almost no experiential difference between a cheap TV and a “nice” TV. If Deadwood is good on a $2,000 plasma screen on HBO, it’s 98% as good on your sister’s giveaway used 19-inch, a $35 DVD player, and Netflix. The extra expenditure buys almost nothing in terms of the quality of experience. Same with the music. For $4.95 a month, I can get I’m guessing 75% of of Bryan’s CD collection on Yahoo. Capitalism makes money worth much less when it comes to manufactured non-positional goods. (2) Adaptation. The mind is a novelty whore — a change detector. Consciousness loses its grip on the added quality of a premium picture, sound system, etc., very fast. The cheap, almost perfect substitute for an expensive stereo is a cheap stereo. The cheap substitute for an exquisite meal at the best restaurant in Paris is… what? IHOP in Arlington? A great memory and a great story is an ongoing flow of positive experience.

The term market egalitarianism smuggles some dubious associations into the argument (I don’t think the fact that we can all possibly buy comparable TVs makes us all equal in any meaningful way—purchasing power isn’t quite synonymous with political power) but the rest seems right. If we are looking to buy status or novelty, consumer goods are likely to disappoint us. As Jane Galt at Asymmetrical Information writes, “Status-hunting via material goods is a zero-sum game, and unless you’re Bill Gates, the odds are you’re going to lose. With a little mental discipline (okay, a lot) you can stop playing that game, and force yourself to concentrate on the things that really give you joy, rather than simply creating a transitory gleam of envy in someone else’s eye.” And If we are looking for utility, we can find generally it on the cheap. But perhaps most important, utility is not necessary equivalent to happiness—maximizing utility seems like defensive behavior, an anxious protection of certain standards one has adapted to, whereas happiness is something else, an absence of self-consciousness in the midst of experience, and the subsequent ability to remember later how that felt.


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