In the popular sci-fi movie series “The Matrix”, a handful of humans discover that the perception of reality has been artificially engineered by computer software. By taking the red pill1 a person can be released from the deception, thereby seeing things as they truly are. About material “stuff”, I’ve had the same sort of epiphany.
Three years ago, we decided we needed to build a house. We weren’t pleased with our previous neighbourhood; and we happened on a piece of land that seemed to fit our needs. We began working with a builder to design a house. Despite our intent to build a smaller house, the design ended up being considerably larger than the house we were already in. Everything was to be custom-designed and fabricated. All of the fixtures were selected. We had spent hundreds of hours thinking about the designs, going to meetings, reading books, looking at photographs. It was an enormous investment of time and a significant investment of money.
Eventually, we had an epiphany. I couldn’t sleep and felt restless. We had been living with a constant sense of anxiety about the money, about the pace of the planning, and about the future house becoming an anchor. We stayed awake talking about it until nearly 1 AM. The next morning we called off the project.
Since then, we’ve sold our house and the land. We moved into a rental house that is a little crowded but is adequate for our needs. We’ve sold, given away, or discarded hundreds of unneeded items. The process of shedding all of this is like taking the “red pill”. It is hard to look at the ridiculous sums of money that people spend on their houses without feeling that we’ve all been trapped in a “Matrix” of misperceptions. We’ve been jacked-in to the mental games played by advertisers and the real-estate industry. Both operate by promoting the idea that you can be happier with more material goods. Your life isn’t going to be any better because you have Corian, or quartz, or granite, or whatever countertops. You won’t feel more at home because of your soaring ceilings. The phenomenon of hedonic adaptation2 will ensure that you’ll need a stronger “dose” of material stuff when the pleasure of your luxury house wanes. And it will wane.
We’ve purposely put ourselves in a position to find the boundaries of what is enough. It’s surprisingly little.
In “The Matrix”, the protagonist was offered the choice between a red pill and a blue pill. Taking the red pill would reveal stark reality. Taking the blue pill would continue the illusion. ↩︎
The hedonic treadmill, or hedonic adaptation is a mechanism whereby humans tend to return to a given set-point for happiness. Gregg Easterbrook has extended the idea of hedonic adaptation by observing the ways the people believe themselves to be deprived, the so-called “abundance denial”. He describes this well in The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (Random House, 2003) available at your local library ↩︎