Saturday, 17 May 2014

Buying happiness

One notable difference about living in the city centre compared to other places we have lived is that, instead of being surrounded by other people's homes, we are surrounded predominantly by retail units. Our nearest neighbours are mostly the temples to Britain's favourite religion, consumerism.

It is an interesting place to find myself because, as some of you may know, I don't really like shopping. I do it because I have to, but it is not something I would ever choose to do for pleasure. The footfall through Birmingham City Centre on a Saturday afternoon suggests that in this, I am somewhat unusual.

Supposedly, everyone else thinks shopping is just brilliant and exactly what they want to be doing with their day off. On the other hand, looking at the faces of those passing by, maybe I'm not so unusual after all, because for a past-time which seems to attract millions, it's surprisingly rare to see people with beaming smiles spread across their faces. Frustration, yes; anger, sometimes; dissatisfaction, predominantly. But joy? No. Not really. That is not what I see on a busy Saturday in Birmingham.

So what is it all about? Why do millions of people spend a lot of time and all their money doing something which brings at best fleeting moments of relief or even euphoria, but which leaves behind a deep-seated dissatisfaction with ourselves and the world around us? A deep dissatisfaction which, not knowing how to shift, we think might just go with the next trip to guess where? Yes, the same old shopping centre to buy that one more thing which will, this time perhaps, solve it.

We all know the cliché that you can't buy happiness, and probably the vast majority of people would nod their heads sagely and agree with its truth. So I don't really want this to be a blog post that just repeats that age old message.

But I do want it to reflect on how the advertisers message that this one more thing which will make you more beautiful, more successful, more loveable, more satisfied, more happy manages to pervade beneath our common sense and deepest values which tell us this is all a load of nonsense. I want it to reflect on how our society has built itself on a system which is dependent on the misery of the majority.

Because sadly, it seems that it is very much in the interest of the revolving door of consumer capitalism to keep us unhappy. Our economic model relies on our dissatisfaction, and on a few people profiting from everyone else being miserable. Our whole economic system of buying power and growth would crumble if we were suddenly all satisfied, or heaven forbid actually happy. Those profiting from the current system are not going to allow it to be shaken easily, and those in power are terrified of the void that would leave behind.

And so almost from the cradle we are surrounded by messages which tell us we should strive to be something better, or stronger, or more beautiful, or more busy, or more intelligent, or more ... than we already are. And because we can never be more of all those things, because we can never satisfy our own ideals, well, then we just have to keep buying more stuff to try and fill the gaps instead.

So it seems it shouldn't be so very difficult. All we have to do is be happy. To find joy in being exactly who we are right now, at this time, in this place. To be satisfied with the messiness of our own complicated life which is never going to be exactly like the next person's. To find spaces where we can love our own humanity.

The freedom we claim to cling to so dearly in our society is to be found in this. Freedom is not to be found in the buying power or the false choices of a privatised economy. The true freedom we are called to is a freedom to be who we truly are. The freedom to know we can't buy happiness. The freedom to find ways to be happy enough to realise the full truth of this.

On a Saturday afternoon in Birmingham, it is pretty obvious there is much work to be done before we live in a society which is really happy and truly free.

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