Consumer Stoicism

After a brief hiatus, we're back at Casual Kitchen! I'd like to thank readers for your patience while I took last month off from blogging.

Readers, I'd like to share a brief quote from William Irvine's exceptional book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy:

"Since becoming a Stoic, my desires have changed dramatically; I no longer want many of the things I once took to be essential for proper living… I used to long for a new car, but when my sixteen-year-old car recently died, I replaced it with a nine-year-old car, something that a decade ago I could not have imagined myself doing. (The "new" car, by the way, has two things that my old car lacked: a cup holder and a working radio. What a joy!) There was a time when I would have understood why someone would want to own a Rolex watch; now such behavior puzzles me. I used to have less money than I knew what to do with; this is no longer the case, in large part because I want so few of the things that money can buy."

If you're at all interested in consumer empowerment, if you have the least bit of interest in taking your power into your own hands as a consumer, then this quote ought to resonate with you. Strongly. To see why, let me share a thought experiment with you.

Which of the following two consumers is more empowered?

1) The person who "longs" for a new car, a new watch, a new phone, and has become trained to become happy when getting them, or

2) The person who deeply realizes the central truth that these things don't actually bring happiness, they merely offer a temporary form of pleasurable distraction that most people confuse with genuine happiness?

The answer should be instantly obvious to most CK readers. How obvious is it to you?

I'll go one step further. If you "long" for something, can you ever be in a position of empowerment in the face of the company selling that something? Particularly if it's an aspirational product or service designed specifically to trigger your desires? *

Don't get me wrong: The idea here is not to become a Vulcan and purge all emotions and desires so you can tolerate the alleged indignities of driving an old car. That misses the point entirely, and it's not even close to what I'm suggesting.

Moreover, it's not what a Stoic philosopher would suggest either. The Stoics pretty much get a bad rap: they are badly misunderstood in the modern era, and today most people mistakenly think of them as joyless duds. It's a shame, because nothing could be further from the truth.

Furthermore, the Stoics knew as well as anyone that we of course long for things. It's human nature. But what we genuinely desire and long for are things like companionship, attention, love, friendship, joy. Not products or services available in the consumer marketplace! Consumer products are nothing more than easily available proxies for (or worse, distractions from) these underlying, joyous, and deeply human emotions.

Which brings us, finally, to a tremendous irony. Products and services in the consumer marketplace cost money, usually a lot of money. But the genuine things we long for are almost always free! It's so painfully ironic I feel like I just passed a kidney stone.

* Note: we'll go a bit deeper in to "desire triggering" in next week's post.

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1 comment:

Marcia said...

I long for a new car. Actually, I long for a minivan. I honestly don't care if it's new.

The thing is, I probably only *need* to drive 6 people (one more than my car can handle) once every week or two.