A couple of years ago, my wife Pele and I took our campervan on a road trip through British Columbia. We stopped at a busy supermarket parking lot. Pele jumped out to buy a few groceries. I stayed inside to make sandwiches.
Three young men were walking by. As they came alongside our van, one of them sneered, “It must be nice to afford that.”
Then he spat on our passenger side door.
The retail price on a camper like ours is about $180,000 USD.
I stood shocked for several seconds. Did that really happen? I walked outside, noticed the gift he left, and then jogged through the swarm of people to try to find the guy. Fortunately, I couldn’t. Nothing good would have come from what I might have said.
There’s no excuse for what he did. But it did get me thinking. Whether I meant to or not, I projected wealth. And doing that often builds walls instead of bridges.
In his eyes, I owned something exclusive. He didn’t like that.
It’s easy to say, “That’s his problem.” And that’s partly true. But as humans, we’re often blind to something dark below the surface.
Consider the word, “exclusive.” How many times do marketers seduce us with this word? They might describe an exclusive property, an exclusive club, or exclusive dining room.
The verb form of “exclusive” is to exclude. And that shouldn’t be attractive. It builds walls, which can lead to resentment.
But don’t others admire us for the stuff we own?
The answer is, almost never.
If you saw someone wearing a $1 million watch, you might say, “Wow, that’s really nice.” But we never say, “Wow, I really respect that person because of their fancy watch.”
And herein lies one of the strangest parts about human nature. If nobody could see our high-status things, would we still buy them? In other words, if you lived alone on a deserted island, would you upgrade your kitchen, drive a Ferrari or wear a bucketful of diamonds?
Some people would. And that’s fine. But most people wouldn’t… if nobody else could see them.
In other words, we often buy flashy things to impress other people. But that simply doesn’t work.
It often builds walls instead of bridges.
But what about the pleasure we get from owning expensive things? Reams of behavioural research say that’s an illusion. People who live in mansions don’t laugh or sing more heartedly in the shower, compared to those with more modest digs. Most Ferrari drivers don’t enjoy their driving experience any more than those that drive Hondas. That’s because we get used to what we own.
It’s called hedonic adaptability.
And treadmills of consumption can make retirement planning tough. According to the late Thomas Stanley’s myriad of research, most of the people who wear Rolexes and drive Porsches, for example, don’t have a lot of wealth. They’re mostly high-salaried people who just spend a lot of money.
In fact, plenty of high-income earners are living month-to-month. That’s a prison they build themselves.
But there is a way out. Spend less. Invest more. That can bring us freedom. It might mean freedom from a job that gives you grey hair or ulcers; freedom to spend more time playing beach volleyball with friends and family; freedom to travel down the Nile in a boat; and freedom to gift some of your money to a poor school in India.
This reminds me of what I see on the walls of children’s classrooms and in some of my friend’s homes. They’re phrases to help kids grow, such as Be Kind, Forgive Others, Share, Be The First To Say Sorry.
Based on life satisfaction research, such posters could include another level for adults:
How To Live Your Best Life
Spend much less than you earn. Invest plenty for your future.
The happiest people don’t have more or better things.
If you have expensive items, don’t feel the need to show them off.
Nobody will love or respect you more because of what you own.
Last, but not least: never spit on somebody else’s things.