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On Excess

Written by Andrea Hill on . Posted in People Issues

champagneWe were watching a television show the other day, and one of the characters purchased a $10,000 bottle of champagne. I wondered, "How many people in this world actually have the palate to appreciate the difference between a $10,000 bottle of champagne and a $1,000 bottle of champagne?" I do believe there are some folks who could genuinely taste the value and experience terrific joy from such an investment. And assuming that a $10,000 spend didn't create hardship for themselves or anyone else, more power to them. I certainly do not have that palate. I enjoy all products of the grape, but I know the limitations of my sensibilities. For me, my life would experience no greater benefit from the $10,000 bottle than it would from the $1,000 bottle. So defines the extent to which I am willing to spend money on champagne.

 

Of couse, willing has caveats, and they are not as simplistic as able. I realize it's probably the Iowan in me, but I look for a certain amount of moderation in my life. Moderation as defined by me, not a form of moderation masking laziness, developed to make a statement, or to appease a Nietzschean conscience. Over the years I have watched people strive for things they cannot afford or support, only to be made miserable by the consequences. I had the same reaction to that as I have to hangovers. Why would anyone intentionally inflict such pain on themselves?

The simple answer is that they are trying to make an impression. To be viewed by others as someone better than or more important than they really are. I suppose that simple answer applies to a lot of people. A more complex explanation is that a person lacks an internal sense of worth, and seeks to supplement her identity with acquisitions. I know many people to whom this description would apply as well. But I think the main reason people succumb to excess is that they are not conscious about what really matters. I don't mean in a common moralistic sense - I mean to them.  If we spend more on something - more energy, more money, more worry, more time - than it is genuinely worth to us, it is an excess. If we spend more on something than those around us would spend, but that investment gives us great joy, or helps us achieve something essential and benefits our lives in the process, then it is not an excess.

The bursting of the real estate bubble in 2007-2008 and the subsequent lean years shone a harsh light on our profligate spending. To be sure, consumer spending is down in the aftermath. As a branding expert, I often guide my clients to focus on the fact that consumers want more meaning and substance in their purchases. But sometimes I wonder, is that true? Have we started spending less because we are truly more conscious of our choices, or only because we have less money to spend?

My beautiful daughter - the one who turns heads everywhere she goes - only buys her clothing at Goodwill. She could afford to buy her clothing at Macy's, though she's not on a Bloomingdale's budget. But she places little value on clothing and the only style she follows is her own. Where she does invest money is on her grocery budget. Feeding her young family the highest quality ingredients is worth a disproportionate part of her nurse's salary. Some people would suggest that she is excessive in her grocery shopping. If she were shopping at the natural foods market because that's where the other young mothers in her neighborhood were shopping and for no other good reason, it would be an excess. But she has placed significant health and human value on food quality, so by her own definition this is not an excess. 

In each person's life there are a small number of things they feel passionate about and a lot more things that are just the workaday aspects of our lives. These things are very personal to each of us. My life partner could eat the same food every day for decades without getting bored, but the kids and I have always been very enthusiastic about what's for dinner. If she were on her own, my partner would spend next-to-nothing on groceries. On the other hand, she thinks nothing about spending $800 on a vaccuum cleaner. Some people think that's crazy, but vaccuuming is a form of meditation for her, and she gets great joy out of the kind of clean house that matters to nobody other than her. If I spent $800 on a vaccuum cleaner for my own use, my family would mock me for the rest of my life. Even though I could certainly afford it, it would be an excess.

But what we have is a society where people live in houses so expensive that they can't enjoy their families, and have those houses filled with things that they may never actually use. Our compulsion to own 20 blouses instead of four leads to children sweating and dying in far-away factories. Our landfills are full, our houses are stuffed, our pockets are empty, and our country - one of the richest in the world - rates abysmally low on every 'happiness' index. It just doesn't have to be this way. Being happy with less is not the same as not-having.

Achieving consciousness about what we value most is liberating on many levels. Just as character helps us stay true to our core beliefs and make decisions consistent with that core, conscious awareness of our values helps us decide where to invest.  For some people, tithing 10% to their church is an excess - if they only do it because of social pressure and they don't believe in the essential value (Kant would disagree, but as you can probably tell, I am more Aristotelian in my moral system). On the other hand, someone could give 80% of even a meager income and have it not be an excess at all if their reason for doing so is consistent with their passionate belief about how to live.

I suspect that if each of us took the time and did the inner work of discovering what was most meaningful to us - and what, therefore, was not - we would be more peaceful. At that point, we could more easily ignore what others may or may not think of us, and we would be more happy. For those with lingering identity and self-worth issues, this work would be a salve to the soul. Not only would we be more successful at living within our means, but if we wanted our means to increase, we would be specifically focused on our ability to do more with and for our passions - which would make the work more joyful and compelling.

I don't believe any one person can define excess for any other. But I suspect that if each one of us found our individual moderation - investing in the things that really matter, and freeing ourselves from preoccupation with the rest - that the overall social result would be balance. It would give us a brilliant combination of passion and peace.