I have everything. My life is empty

I've got the house, the wife and the money, so why am I not happy?


Cary Tennis
November 19, 2010 6:20AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I have it all. Life has been good. Though by no means rich, I have money in the bank, a solid marriage and prospects for a comfortable future.

But I am happier when I have less.

This life has numbed me into not feeling happiness. I have everything, and instead of being happy, I feel like a glutton. Most people would trade their life for mine in a minute. I have, it seems, done everything the right way -- or at least had timing on my side.

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What is wrong with me? I have become uninterested. It's like having too much of your favorite ice cream. At some point, it is going to make you sick and you will turn away from another spoonful. I have to figure out what to do before I wreck what I have worked to get. Not superstitious in the least, I cannot say to myself with any credulity that if I don't appreciate what I have I'll lose it. My story doesn't have a higher power to whom I lay blame or give credit, either.

Volunteering helps. But I need to find the long-term solution.

Any ideas?

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Me, From My Blue Heaven

Dear Blue Heaven,

It is not hard to figure out why the life you have chosen does not make you happy. It was not designed to make you happy. It was designed to maximize your purchases.

Naturally, you are unhappy living a sterile, isolated, useless life in a big house full of nice things.

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It's great that you have recognized this. Now you can join those who are struggling to fashion lives for ourselves that are not tragically empty and meaningless. You can join those who resist living as voiceless cogs in a dispirited wheel of consumption and production.

We don't know exactly how to do what we're trying to do but we take comfort and strength in the trying.

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President Obama's election was not a mistake. Nor were the recent gains by conservatives a mistake. We hunger for something better. We're not sure how to get it. It's not easy. It's not assured. But we might as well try to get it before we're dead.

We might as well try.

We know this much: Maximizing your purchases will not make you happy. The lifestyle of  consumption is not designed to make you happy. It's designed to make the people who sell you things happy. It's designed to suck the maximum number of dollars out of you for the maximum number of years, maintaining you as a dependable, lifetime revenue source on the nearly infinite ledger of American capitalism.

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No wonder you're unhappy. There's no check box on the ledger for "Is this nameless, faceless consumer/revenue-source happy?"

But you can change your life.

In considering how to change your life, remember that you have enemies. Your enemies don't want you to change. They want to keep you as a dependable revenue source.

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The consumerist hall of mirrors lacks clearly marked exits. That is by design. You are not supposed to leave. You are supposed to wander endlessly until fully depleted.

Your enemies prefer you to be constantly unhappy, constantly in search of things to buy. It is better for your enemies if you are slightly dazed, exhausted by your daily work schedule, unable to find the time to carefully think through your predicament. It is better for your enemies if you believe that outside the gates of your happy enclave, brutal, inhuman conditions prevail. It is better if you know little of your true capacity for free action, for a relaxed, carefree life devoid of worry. It is better for them if you believe there is no alternative.

But there is.

There are all kinds of alternatives.

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You can leave. The sooner you leave, the better. The younger you are when you leave, the stronger you are, the more energy you have for the arduous path of escape.

You are happy when you are volunteering. That makes sense. Volunteering allows connection and selfless activity.

Do that. Do more of that. It will lead you in the right direction.

Volunteerism is by definition not mandatory. In this obvious truism lies a deceptively simple truth.

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No wonder we are unhappy! So much is mandatory! So little is voluntary! What if most of life were voluntary and only a fraction were mandatory?

I am 57 years old. I grew up in an era of protest against the very kind of life that is making you so unhappy. My friends and I, and the thinkers whose books we read and whose classes we took, saw that a life of consumerism such as you describe would lead to unhappiness. We tried to avoid it in our own lives and to defeat its promoters. We largely failed. We had difficulty building a working alternative. Many of us were co-opted or seduced into living this same life that we knew would lead only to anxiety, boredom and depression for us and destruction and misery for the planet and its peoples.

The forces arrayed against us were great. They remain great. Meanwhile, vast technologies of persuasion and manipulation have grown in sophistication and power. By now we have seen two whole generations succumb to the enticements of this system of consumption and destruction.

Now the system groans under its horrible burden.

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Yet still it cranks out its feeble inducements: Come, live in eternal comfort and luxury. Come, be admired for the quality of your possessions. Come, be beautiful and carefree and happy. Come, eliminate pain. Eliminate worry. Come, sleep with us. Come snuggle up close. Come, be happy like a child. Come.

And still, hypnotized, we follow. We buy. We fill our boxes with boxes.

My generation did what we could to come up with new ways of living. We have not forgotten. We recognize your struggle. 

When I Google "affluence boredom" I get "From Affluence to Anxiety," in "The Ascent of Humanity." Check it out. I think I like this guy Charles Eisenstein.

Many people are working to find better ways of living, people with rich, reasoned critiques of "the way things are." We're not all crazies; we're not all starry-eyed mystics and dirty hippies.

There's nothing wrong with you for wanting a better life.

I suggest you discuss your unhappiness with your wife and make some changes. I see a journey in your future.

It won't be easy. There's no road map. You have to figure it out. But you can do it.



Write Your Truth.

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Cary Tennis

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