For as long as I can remember, year after year, I planned to wake up and check out the scene at the toy or department store at some obscenely early hour the morning after Thanksgiving — not because I wanted to shop but because I was curious to visit the safari. It’s always struck me as quite the exotic mystery: Why would anyone want to walk away from a potentially calm morning with family or friends or reflection to fight for a parking spot? Now most of us have news images, indelibly imprinted in our memory, of packed stores on Thanksgiving night itself.
For as long as I can remember, my friend and colleague Jonah Goldberg has been outraged by Kay Jewelers. The slogan “every kiss begins with Kay” suggests to him the notion of buying a woman’s favors — as in prostitution. Diamonds might not be a girl’s best friend, but I’ve never shared his chivalrous outrage. Or I didn’t until I caught a recent Kay commercial for Jane Seymour’s “Open Heart” collection. In the ad, a gentleman caller gives a young girl a replica of the necklace he had already given her mother, leaving viewers with the impression that the price of modern love is mother-daughter bling that Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman can sell you.
In his book Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy, James A. Roberts, a professor at Baylor University’s business school, helps walk us back from the cliff of excessive materialism, an excess typified in the concept of Black Thursday. Roberts contends that “many Americans lack the ability to imagine any life but one focused on the pursuit of material possessions.” I may not think that describes me, and you may not think that it describes you, but it can’t hurt to reflect, in the time we have between watching ads and reading sales e-mails. And why not take a look at our bank accounts and budgets? “We work to spend and must work more to feed a never-ending desire for more,” Roberts tells me. “The average Baby Boomer heading into retirement has saved an average of $50,000. That’s barely enough to get them through the first year, let alone the 20 years most of us will live past retirement, thanks to advances in medical technology.”
Even in challenging economic times, most of us have a lot more than we need. And perhaps a reason we’re headed toward a fiscal cliff is that we’ve reached the outer edges of materialism.
“Given that most Americans would readily admit that money and material possessions are not going to make us happy, why do we continue to act as if they will?” Roberts asks. “IPhones embody the very essence of the ‘shiny objects’ ethos. They are very expensive and need to be updated constantly to stay abreast of all of the new features and apps being offered. Apple has fully embraced the strategies of planned and perceived obsolescence to keep us spending more than we can afford. It’s a classic strategy used in many if not all industries as a way to keep bringing consumers back to the cash register.” (Is that “Gangnam Style,” freshly downloaded from iTunes, you’re listening to?)
We might not think of Madonna’s “we are living in a material world, and I am a material girl” as our theme song, but her lyrics surely reflect an unavoidable aspect of contemporary culture.
Steeped in materialism as we are, the renewed focus on sacrifice in some circles is timely. The U.S. Catholic bishops’ annual meeting in Baltimore this month discussed following the lead of the English bishops, who have reintroduced the discipline of abstaining from meat on Fridays. New York’s Timothy Cardinal Dolan has described abstention from meat as an “external act of penance, so necessary to fight the reign of sin so evident in our personal lives, in the world, and even within religious communities.” But it needn’t take scandal, bankruptcy, or a hurricane,” Dolan wrote shortly before Thanksgiving, to remember “the essentials of life that no wind or wave can wipe out — love, faith, hope, life itself, family, friends, a future, and a community” that lets us know we are not alone.
“Living a life of meaning requires that we have the ability to exercise control over our behavior and desires,” Roberts says, urging us to develop the habit of generosity. “Any real and lasting behavior change is preceded by a change in our attitudes. Once you have convinced yourself that money and possessions are not the path to happiness, you’re halfway there.”
Shiny Objects is not so much condemnation of materialistic habits as it is a catalyst for change. Exchanging fewer shiny objects this Christmas might give us an opportunity to enjoy one another, to move forward together in love, rather than in a return line with gift receipts.
“Shiny Objects was written with two broad objectives in mind,” Roberts explains. “The first was to make a compelling argument that more money and possessions will not make us happier.” Again, we may think we know this, but does our budget this month suggest something else? Once Roberts diagnoses the malady, he offers a prescription: “The last four chapters explain how these new attitudes about money and possessions can be put to work in the reader’s life. A moderate measure of self-control over our finances can bring peace where worry, stress, and anxiety once reigned. My hope is that readers leave Shiny Objects with a new outlook on what real happiness entails and how this elusive state can be achieved.”
Roberts’s gift to his readers is to demonstrate how we can achieve “a life of financial tranquility.” It might save you this time of year. For, as Roberts quotes Albert Einstein, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Having fewer shiny objects leaves room for everlasting riches.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.