Vanity thought #858. Science beats materialism

Earlier this month The Guardian published not one but two articles on some recent research confirming that greater materialism leads to greater unhappiness (here and here).

By research they mean not one but a series of studies published this year alone and also a body of research for the past 35 years. The connection is indisputable and some studies insist not only on correlation but also on causation – that, indeed, materialism causes unhappiness. One study even focused on feedback loop, how materialism causes loneliness and how resultant loneliness causes even more materialism. That particular study was done over six years. Other studies followed the subjects for several months and there was one that compared results over the course of twelve years. Science is solid here.

What is left to dispute is what they mean by materialism and what they mean by happiness.

Happiness is a fuzzy concept, especially when so many studies are done independently. They were not measuring one and the same thing but rather a collection of parameters that relate to happiness in general. Sense of well-being, sense of self-worth, sense of fulfillment, sense of satisfaction, peace of mind, or even the decreased levels of opposite emotions like post traumatic stress. In some studies they relied on standard diagnostic tests to identify mental problems, like when they show you a few ink blots and then tell you you have suppressed sexual feelings for your mother.

All in all, however, there isn’t much room left for skepticism here. They weren’t measuring spiritual happiness, of course, but, in our terms, they noticed increased levels of mode of goodness, which always feels better.

There’s more room left for the argument what constitutes materialism there and whether we and them are talking about the same thing at all.

By materialism they mean mostly consumerism, or, more directly, shopping. At one point they talked about two kinds of materialism – “using possessions as a yardstick of success and seeking happiness through acquisition”. Interesting distinction but it’s still talking about shopping. Elsewhere they made another distinction – buying experiences instead of buying things, ie spending money on a trip to a theater or a vacation is better for your wellbeing than spending the same amount on clothes or new phones.

What complicates the matter somewhat is that shopping does bring immediate happiness, that is also indisputable, but the effects are rather short lived and beyond that you are doomed. Much has been made there of this tumblr blog where people show off their possessions and they seemingly look happy but one astute observation always holds true: “If you have four Rolexes while another has five, you are a Rolex short of contentment.”

In other places they notice that instead of inciting envy in others these images reek of desperation and slavery, as if all the displayed stuff has taken control over people’s lives and they send these pictures as some sort of a message in a bottle to remind the world that they still exist. Personally, I don’t see it that way but I understand why someone else would, there’s a point to this argument, too.

So, how does this relate to us? Is is the same materialism that we battle in our lives as aspiring devotees? Yes and no. We want things just as anybody else and, on many occasions, we also fall into slavery to status establishing possessions. For me, there’s nothing more painful than watching a brahmachari lusting for an iPhone and putting forward ridiculous reasons to justify it – “Steve Jobs was a devotee”, or “It’s for preaching”.

I’m still uncomfortable with Bhagavatam speakers who consult with their notebooks or tablets, as if possessing these gadgets is what made you qualified to give a class. Pretty soon we’ll have listeners equipped with tablets, too, ready to double check your every quote, your every reference, and if you don’t bring one to class you’ll be made to feel inadequate and maybe not even serious about your spiritual progress.

There could be valid reasons for justifying this technology but as soon as it inserts itself between a speaker and a listener it ruins everything. One prerequisite for acquiring spiritual knowledge is unconditional surrender, it won’t happen if you doubt the words of your guru and always ready to check Folio for accuracy. Surrender means surrender, you leave everything else behind and you take a leap of faith. Path to Krishna’s feet does not lie through double checking every step. Accuracy does not give rise to devotion, rather the opposite.

This little rant is about obvious effects of materialism, however, even they, the infidels, can spot it and accuse us of hypocrisy.

The most important difference between their understanding of what materialism is and our definition is that what they consider as non-materialistic, the buying of experiences and seeking relationships and a place in a society, for example, is rejected by us with equal force.

What they say is better for your happiness is objectively better, in a sense that mode of goodness is better than the mode of passion, but it’s still to be rejected. We reject their notion of happiness itself, too. We don’t want to be happy, we don’t want to be self-fulfilled, we don’t want to possess extraordinary self-worth, we don’t want peace of mind, for attaining all those things only deepens our illusion that separation from Krishna can be pleasant.

In fact, seeking happiness here is more dangerous than being affected by a bout of envy. With envy we at least know that it’s our enemy and an anartha meant to be purged, seeking of happiness, otoh, is fundamentally undevotional. As long as we seek happiness here, even with Krishna’s help, we’ll never become devotees. Bhakti is about seeking happiness for Krishna, not for ourselves.

Authors of these Guardian articles would also agree that being selfish is bad but their idea of selflessness is to expand your interests to cover even bigger chunk of the material world. You are considered selfish if you project your ego only on your own body but if your ego includes family, nation, and the entire humanity than you are being selfless.

No, you aren’t, you might be being even greedier that way. Hitler wasn’t selfish by that definition, after all.

Hmm, perhaps I reached a point here where Godwin’s Law must take over. Even if I can rant some more I won’t add anything useful to this topic. Selfish, selfless – doesn’t matter, we should try to please guru and Krishna and not waste time on useless arguments.


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