“Here we go again”, I thought, when my college junior son announced he “needed” a new guitar because of his unpaid gig playing in a praise band at the church he attends while at school. (Yes, there are college kids who don’t drink or do drugs or have casual sex, and who regularly attend church and are involved in campus religious organizations. While I wasn’t that college kid when I was in school, that’s my boy, the one who’s had two bone marrow transplants. It’d seem to me he might be mad at God, for all the hell God’s put him through. But he’s sanguine in his faith. I think he figures God picked him because He knew he was one of the few who could handle it. I sure as hell couldn’t have.) The boy could not possibly need a new guitar. He has about five guitars, a banjo, an ukulele, and a trombone (from his marching band days). Of the guitars, he has two straight acoustics, one straight electric, and two acoustic/electric’s. One of the latter two is a Yamaha that is more acoustic than electric and the other is a Gibson Les Paul that is more electric than acoustic.

I got the Gibson for him shortly after his being diagnosed a second time with leukemia. At $700, it was a pretty penny to pay for a guitar for an amateur guitarist who would probably be dead within the year. I did it out of guilt, feeling bad for having been so audacious as to think that having a kid would be the one thing I did that didn’t turn out disastrously, as if this would be the one instance when I didn’t have the reverse Midas touch (no, I don’t generally feel this way, but you have a kid who is stricken with leukemia the second time, and see how that makes you feel about whatever else in life you may have accomplished). I knew the boy loved the process of acquisition, and offered to let him pick out the new guitar to give him something better to do than mull over his fate. His acquisitive soul settled on the most expensive guitar he figured he could get away with wanting (of course). He knew how bad I felt about the leukemia coming back. His calculus was spot on. I bought the expensive guitar for him as penance for my sins, though I doubt it worked, as I still felt as guilty as ever, and for what exactly, I didn’t really know. Five years later, and the guitar has practically never been taken out of its also-quite-expensive case. Yet it is practically identical to the one he says he now wants for playing with the praise band.

I know my son. It’s the getting that keeps him going, not the having. At least while he was shopping for the guitar, it managed to focus his mind on things other than his leukemia. And with this latest obsession acquisition, it is the getting, not the prospect of having, that is driving him forward. He’s always happiest when he’s figuring a way to get something. Cleaning out his room lately in preparing for a pending move, the reality of his acquisitive impulses were hammered home through the outsized garbage bags overflowing with the products of his successful forays that had to be carted out, first for a garage sale and later for the dump. He feverishly acquired according to whatever fad fancied his mind, so there are collections of Pokemon cards, Beanie Babies, Legos and much more.

My son is not unique in what might seem a quirk of human nature—that happiness is not to be found in the achievement or the acquisition, but in the yearning. Most people have an idea in their mind of some idyllic future place where they will finally find peaceful bliss.   But the human psyche is not designed for peaceful bliss. It is designed to impel us forward, to keep us continually striving, no matter how much is achieved or acquired. If it needs to dangle the carrot of peaceful bliss in front of our noses to keep us striving, that’s exactly what it will do. If it needs to inculcate the idea of an eternal life of happiness in heaven as our reward for continually fighting a battle against entropy that we know we will ultimately lose here on earth, then it will do that, too. The human mind was created to keep us alive long enough that the genes we carry make it into the next generation. It will allow brief interludes of pleasant feelings we sometimes call happiness, as the reward for achievement of some goal or objective, but it has no interest in allowing any particular achievement to quell the ceaseless striving that it evolved as a forager to believe was necessary for survival.

There is no off switch to the yearning impulse, just a pause button. Apple Computer figured this out long ago, and cynically exploits it with each new product launch or upgrade. And to be fair to Apple, the whole of capitalist endeavors directed at the consuming public depend on this principle of continuous striving. In every consumer market, from car companies, to homebuilders, to that fancy new restaurant down the street that serves hardly identifiable yet lyrically-described food, capitalists exploit the yearning impulse.

What humans in fully-developed, wealthy societies yearn for the most these days is status (survival being already more or less secure). The yearning for status sells cars, boats, motorcycles, cell phones, kitchen appliances, paintings, spirits (wine and beer and vodka and tequila and bourbon and scotch), televisions, vacations, jewelry, clothes (especially women’s clothes and shoes), the services of manicurists and tanning salons, etc., ad nauseam. 2/3rds of the economy is consumer spending. Probably 2/3rds or more of consumer spending nowadays goes towards achieving or protecting status. Even when a consumer good is purchased for its utility, more, sometimes vastly more, is paid for the product if it has a status-enhancing quality (e.g., Apple’s cell phones versus Nokia’s). The only economic sectors not overly concerned with selling status are producers of commoditized goods and services that are not sold in end markets. Big agriculture, mining, transportation and delivery—these are not goods which can be directly employed to enhance a consumer’s status among consumers. They therefore sport some of the lowest profit margins in the economy. A bushel of corn or a barrel of oil doesn’t fetch a premium for how its ornamental display around the neck or on the feet might enhance the wearer’s status. They’re just bushels of corn or barrels of oil.

There are really two (and perhaps more) sides to the question of whether it is possible to buy some happiness with the purchase of an Apple Watch. Buying the watch to satisfy the yearning impulse as I’ve been describing might buy a transitory period of contentedness that will fade something like gravity, by the inverse square root of the distance, the further away in time was the purchase. So from the perspective of the yearning impulse, the answer is “yes”, qualified by the notion that the happiness will be quite fleeting, after which another yearning will arise in roughly the same mental space to take the place the Apple Watch previously occupied. Don’t worry though, Apple is well aware of the inverse square rule of contentedness, and will time its improved Apple Watch for release at about the time the contentedness from buying the first one will have just fizzled out.

But is there a deeper, less transitory happiness that might be achieved through owning an Apple Watch? It seems unlikely. Several reviewers of the watch pointed out that it is intended to operate as something of an extension of the iPhone, so that the user finds liberation from their cell phone by strapping an Apple Watch around their wrist. This is a dubious claim. First, the watch has much too small a screen for anyone who isn’t an avian predator to be able read and manipulate it on a routine basis.   Second, the watch will likely do exactly the opposite of liberation, tethering its owners ever more tightly to their electronic devices (surely Apple’s intended outcome), as the Apple Watch doesn’t do much except in tandem with the iPhone. Where before there was one electronic device, now there will be two.

And it is a readily observable truth of human nature that people don’t change who aren’t interested in change. The Apple Watch won’t simplify anyone’s life who doesn’t want their life simplified; for people who are “addicted to their iPhone” as one reviewer described himself while raving over the watch’s simplifying potential, the watch will most likely simply substitute one addiction for another.

In short, except for a very brief period just after purchase that quickly fades away, buying an Apple Watch won’t buy happiness.

Which begs the question: Is there any material thing whose purchase or acquisition can bring happiness? Economists know that people get less unhappy as their income increases past that required for subsistence, but only to a point (which was, a few years ago deemed to be about $40,000 per year for a family of four). Achieve subsistence and just a bit more, and you will have eliminated as much unhappiness from your life as is possible.   Eliminating unhappiness is requisite to enjoying happiness, and there is some happiness to be achieved just by eliminating things that make us unhappy, but again, the happiness thus achieved is transitory. More income (past subsistence and then some) can yield even a bit more happiness, but the law of diminishing marginal returns makes income-generated happiness like heroin. People who become addicted to ever-increasing income levels find that it takes bigger and bigger increases to get the same high.

Ignoring the status enhancement that comes with having the latest technologies, does owning any labor-saving and/or communications devices hold any promise of happiness through increased efficiency, i.e., through less expenditure of effort to achieve the same ends? Remember my striving son? It wasn’t the guitar that he was really after, it was the striving to acquire the guitar that he really sought (even if he kidded himself otherwise—a necessary bit of self-deception if the objective is to be achieved). How much happier might he have been had his objective been harder to achieve?

And so it goes with so many of the labor and time saving devices that modern man considers necessities. The human body has been magnificently constructed to spend its days searching for food, and even when it is not hungry, because hunger was never more than a few days away no matter how successful was the latest hunt. The yearning impulse never abates, it is only sometimes paused. But with his belly full and his mind barely taxed, modern man has little for which to yearn.  Ten thousand years of technological development, from irrigated agriculture in the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys, to chatting with strangers across the globe in real time, as life got easier, achieving happiness got harder. We spend our lives thinking we will find happiness in the satisfied glow of achievement or acquisition, but have been tricked by our neural hardware. What really makes us happy is the striving.

At about $400 a pop for the cheapest Apple Watch, acquiring one won’t be so challenging to most people in the West as to provide much happiness in the striving. And as Apple well knows, the contented glow of ownership quickly fades.

So no, buying an Apple Watch won’t much make you happy. In fact, you weren’t made to achieve happiness. You were made to strive for happiness, because that kept you striving to survive and propagate. But once you have overcome every challenge, accomplished every goal, achieved every objective, that you thought stood in the way of you and happiness (I’ve finally got an Apple Watch!), you still won’t have found, as the U2 song goes, “…what you’re looking for.” Because you had what you were looking for when you were looking for it. And what you were looking for was lost as soon as you thought you found it.

Advertisements