Why buying stuff never makes you happy

This tweet stopped me dead in my tracks.

Read tweet

It reminded me of the feeling when you connect multiple sections of a jigsaw puzzle.

But unlike a puzzle, this tweet didn’t evoke a deep sense of joy and satisfaction.

It produced more of a wtf-this-can’t-be-true moment.

But first:

What do Michael Jordan, Taylor Swift and Don Draper have in common?

They are “the stars of human nature.”

They’re constantly “develop themselves and contribute their abilities to the world.

They motivate “others to greater personal achievements than others thought they were capable of.”

This language is directly from the Enneagram Institute, a personality test that helps identify core patterns of thinking and feeling.

And it specifically describes one of the 9 Archetypes: The Achiever.

The Achiever (Type 3) has a simple mission:

Achievers want to be affirmed, to distinguish themselves from others, to have attention, to be admired, and to impress others.

And while it’s an unscientific assessment, the RadReads community skews heavily towards Achievers.

At their best, Achievers are ambitious, highly effective, self-assured and embody “widely admired cultural standards.”

But this behavior can quickly jump the shark (thanks to the law of diminishing returns).

Their self-assuredness turns into a fear of failure.

Their charm metastasizes into narcissism.

Their ambition becomes exploitative and opportuntistic.

What does the dark side of Achievers look like? Patrick Bateman.

Vindictive, psychopathic behavior.

Obsessive about destroying whatever reminds them of their own shortcomings and failures.

The key fear of an Achiever?

Behind these trophy cases of accomplishments, Achievers have a simple fear:

They fear that they have no inherent value if they do not accomplish or succeed at external things.

They fear being worthless.

Which brings us back to the “insecure people” part of the original tweet.

Examining the role of desire

But first a story from the Twilight Zone.

It’s about a burglar who goes to hell, but he mistakenly thinks he’s in heaven.

He breaks into a house, but cash is laying on the dining room table.

He tries to steal a car, but the keys are already in the ignition.

He then goes to a casino, only to realize that he wins every bet.

But he’s not ecstatic. He’s pissed.

Since he can get everything that he wants, there’s no anticipation. No desire to be filled.

And it turns out he’s actually in hell.

I heard this story in a discussion about Todd McGowan’s book Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets.

McGowan makes the argument that capitalism relies heavily on manipulating the inherent sense of lack that characterizes human desire.

And as the story demonstrates, desire plays an instrumental (possibly central) role in the satisfaction that we get from accumulating objects.

This includes objects in the physical world (watches, cars and homes) and objects in the symbolic world (prestige, status and power).

Here’s McGowan describing how this inherent sense of lack leads to a hamster wheel of accumulation (emphasis mine):

“Capitalist accumulation envisions obtaining the object that would provide the ultimate satisfaction for the desiring subject. The object that would quench the subject’s desire and allow it to put an end to the relentless yearning to accumulate. The key to capitalism’s staying power lies in the fact that this ultimately satisfying object doesn’t exist.”

Intellectually we know this to be true. We’ve experienced the failed promise of the When-Then trap – how fancy cars or big-time promotions don’t bring us anywhere closer to a deep satisfaction about life.

It was a bit of a mind-f**k seeing my own perpetual sense of unworthiness (aka lack) fuel the economic system that I reluctantly (or happily) exist within.

The final blow

Then there’s one last piece to the puzzle

It’s a pithy (and punchy) Buddhist teaching:

Desire is suffering.

Yup, clinging to desires and craving things locks us into a perpetual state of suffering.

When we desire an object (or person or experience) and we don’t get it – we suffer.

But even when we get it, the satisfaction is short-lived.

So we go back to return to the well.

Here’s the illustrated version of this conundrum.

Any ideas on how we can break out of this cycle?

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