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Influenced Wishes and Manufactured Happiness

What do you long for? What are your dreams? What influences these ideas?

Free Tasty Technicolor Treats Creative CommonsWould you feel fulfilled if your lifelong dream actually came true? Or would your lifelong dream seem somewhat dulled by the actual experience of having it fulfilled, like the toy that was so desired the week before Christmas, but after opening lies discarded in the wrapping paper? More philosophically, and to the tone of much of my writing, has the hyper-consumerism of the late 20th Century impacted our psyche to the point where nothing short of a miracle will allow us peace from our desires?

We are told on one side, “Be careful what you wish for”, as though there were power in the wish; and on the other, “If wishes were horses then beggars would ride.”

On get well cards we are offered “Best Wishes”, as though all that can be given of what is in our power is a sentiment; powerful for the marketers of Hallmark, perhaps because we feel powerless to offer much else.

Experiences of a Privileged Youth

When I was a kid, I thought I wanted to be a doctor, I was soon informed however, that a propensity for fainting at the sight of blood mixed with cutting-edge surgery were unlikely to co-exist. My hopes were not to be dashed quite so easily though, and I worked hard at the idea of being a surgeon. It was not until I was sixteen that I realised that what I wanted was not to be a surgeon, but to be useful. This was somewhat of a disappointment to my teachers and career advisors, and probably my parents too, as I changed tack and enrolled into officer training in the Australian Army, specifically training in Civil Engineering, that was the start of my career as an engineer, something I really enjoy, because I love designing things and solving problems. These wishes, related to employment, are on a different scale from our everyday wishes, but, I’d contend that they come from a similar place in our experiential outlook on life.

I went to a high school where thoughts of grandeur were expected – we had the best rowing team, the best rugby team, the best facilities, the best teachers – you get the picture. The idea that being surrounded by “the best” would help students aspire to greater goals and higher dreams. Now there is nothing wrong with that, I think it is a universal desire, to better oneself in whatever ways are possible, Shakespeare once wrote, “Nothing is so common-place as to wish to be remarkable”.

Given a chance, most of us wish to be remarkable, the stumbling block however, is that the opportunity doesn’t seem to be there when we need it, why else do we continue to suffer through the daily grind of whatever occupies our time? Are we waiting for the right opportunity? A whole self-help industry has evolved around this conundrum – is there really anything extra we can do to make our wishes come true? Is it a matter of thinking positively? Is there a mantra that must be chanted every morning in front of the mirror?

The problem that I see here, is that most of these dreams or wishes revolve around our need or desire for money. I went to a school that groomed each of us to maximise our earning potential, because that is a primary motivator in our society, and hence, many of our wishes. My whole schooling was aimed at influencing a certain outcome in my life – my “wishes” were partially a product of that manufactured environment. I stand at a crossroads and take stock of what I wish for.

Back to the Farm

I recently read of someone who had chased a dream and at the last minute decided that it wasn’t what they wanted to do. A common story, I’d imagine, but this one offers some instruction on what we need to do with our wishes.

It should have been a high point in my life. I had just successfully defended my dissertation and had three potential job opportunities. But I found myself pacing around our cabin or walking the hills of my family’s farm, alternately weeping and hurling invectives into the country air. Bob and I were fighting with a force I’d never seen.

The simple fact was, I didn’t want the job I’d spent years working toward.

Source: Yes Magazine – Homemade Prosperity (Creative Commons License) by Shannon Hayes.

Shannon goes on to describe how the “American Dream” has lead to hyper-consumerism, and a need for a pile of money to pay for it all…

What had changed? Why did I believe we needed so much? It was a puzzle to me at the time. In retrospect I see that my generation grew up immersed in media that equated affluence with respect, happiness, and fulfillment.

I rarely quote extensively from other sources, but the following passage, (with a Creative Commons License) is useful to explore the point…

To survive, my neighbors had to produce as many of the things they needed as possible and buy only the things they absolutely couldn’t make or grow at home. They grew and preserved food, sewed and mended clothes, and did their own repairs, improvements, and upkeep on the farm.

But most American lives reflect a transition that happened in households following the Industrial Revolution. Before then, the home was a center of production, not very different from the original households that first emerged in 13th-century Europe, as the feudal period was coming to an end. The family’s economic security was a result of the householders’ combined efforts to produce what they needed. They raised their food, cured their meats, made soap, wove fabric, and produced their own clothing.

Once the industrial revolution took hold, the household changed. Men were first to leave the home to work in factories, where they earned wages and used them to purchase the goods and services they were no longer home to produce. The more men worked outside the home, the more households had to buy in order to meet their needs.

For a time, women continued to produce from within the home, but factories eventually supplanted the housewives’ duties as well. As time wore on, domestic skills were no longer paramount for survival. Instead of cultivating skills to provide for our own needs, we pursued skills to produce for others’ needs in exchange for the money to buy what was once produced in the home. The household had changed from a center of production that supplied most of its own needs to a center of consumption that bought nearly everything it needed.

Reality (no) TV

So much of what (we think) we wish for these days revolves around the fundamental shift from producers to consumers that happened over the past century. Our desires and expectations are vastly different from those of our ancestors, is this for the better?

Sunset roadOur kids are immersed in technology as much as many other North American children, with a significant difference from the norm – we don’t watch TV. The battle against the great social experiment of consumerism as an industry is waged at the household level. For us it means avoiding advertising and all it’s seductive claims, (better, bigger, faster, brighter, cleaner, tastier, etc.). Does this make our children more objective? I hope so, but I fear we are just attempting to manufacture an environment as much as the advertisers are, in the hopes of a certain outcome – at least our motivation isn’t related to profit.

The topics we’ve written about here over the past four years have included such challenging issues as peak oil and energy in general, climate change, the future of the economy, transportation, and patterns of living. Finding a way to align our aspirations with our understanding of these events and potential issues while still providing a hopeful future for our family is a challenge that we are working through. Taking the Transition Towns model and applying it to your life, looking at building resiliency against future impacts. That is where our hope lies, our wishes are, whether we like it or not, influenced by these realities that should not be ignored.

Back to the Beginning

So where did we start? Wishes.

Wishes for money. Wishes to be remarkable. Wishes that are influenced by society and our upbringing. Where did we go wrong? How did the allure of consumerism transform our lives to the point where nothing that appears to be desired can satisfy us?

I just wish for a future of relative simplicity, peace and happiness for my family. Is all this stuff really going to make us happy?

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

2 thoughts on “Influenced Wishes and Manufactured Happiness

  1. Nice read Mike.

    My ten year son said to me yesterday, “you know Papa if I had one wish I would wish that our atmosphere would be repaired and that the cars we drive would not continue to wreck it”. What a pleasant surprise for me, not the normal, “1000 more wishes”.

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