Shoppers hit malls the day after Christmas (oregonlive.com)
Just before New Year’s, I read a disturbing statistic in The New York Times: “Americans have among the lowest levels of happiness and work-life balance in the developed world.”
I wish I could say I was stunned to learn that the wealthiest nation in the world was among the least happy. But I had noticed that immediately after Christmas Day, a day when many of us showered each other with countless gifts, the malls were packed with after-Christmas shoppers. Sure, some of those shoppers were returning or exchanging gifts that didn’t quite work. But many people were undoubtedly there for all the post-Christmas bargains so that they could amass more stuff.
The need to acquire more and more material goods and wealth is a symptom of an inner discontent. We tie our worth, not to our intrinsic goodness as human beings, but to the prestige of the car we drive, the handbag we carry, and the zip code in which we live. Then we wake up the day after Christmas and find that none of those gleaming presents around the tree have made us feel any better about ourselves.
No surprise that too much is never enough in a land where everything is available. Look at the levels of obesity in the United States, which are some of the worst in the world. A few years ago, I read a news story about an African teenager who had been brought to the United States to be educated and cared for at a charitable residential school called Mooseheart. The young man came to prominence because he was a star player on Mooseheart’s basketball team. Describing his early life in the United States, he described being taken to a hamburger place and being able to eat only half of the food put in front of him. He was amazed at the bounty in America. We are indeed lucky to have an abundance of food and other essentials here in America. Yet that same abundance tends to breed excess.
The other consequence of all this materialism is that we need to work harder and longer hours to acquire an affluent lifestyle. Technology, which should be seen as a labor saving boon, is instead used to connect us to our workplaces 24/7. Hard-driving workaholics are the admired ones in our society. We give lip service to family values, but our culture encourages us to leave our families and chase more money, power, and prestige.
As we begin a new decade, we as Americans should reconsider our values. It starts with each individual. I can start to recognize what truly makes me happy: spending time with family, giving to others, having solitude in which to read and reflect. I can shed the need for more material things. I can start to judge myself and others not by the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, or the jobs we hold, but by how we treat each other in this land of endless bounty.