Every time I read another article in a women’s magazine about the healing powers of shopping and spa weekends, I cringe. Not because I strongly disagree, but because I think they are promoting a fundamentally wrong assumption that we should enjoy spending money on ourselves, and the more, the better.
Before I explain how I’ve come to this conclusion, let me go back a bit. Up until very recently, most of our daily activities were shared. People were working without computers, requiring cooperation and dialogue; shopping was a special occasion, when families gathered for a day at the market; and holiday preparations involved an entire neighbourhood.
The new culture of the 21st century celebrates career-focused individuals, praised for achieving everything on their own. We create our social media identities and fill them with selfies at work after midnight, exercising at the gym (we need great bodies to go with our blossoming careers), and then with our latest designer purchases (hashtagged #selftreat and #metime).
As a Londoner working in the City, the financial district, I am under constant pressure to be seen as belonging to this group of young and successful professionals. All the long hours we put in to get that next promotion leave us very little time to spend with the people we actually love and care about. Self-treats like luxury chocolates and leather bags offer a seemingly easy fix after a bad day at work, but they don’t address the emotional void we are left with.
I think it’s time we wake up and reassess our aspirations. Do we really need a raise to feel better about ourselves? Or is it just the rules of the modern society that are artificially creating this desire to have everything now?
In a book titled “Happy Money: The New Science of Smarter Spending” researchers Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton offer compelling evidence that after reaching a comfortable level of income, people’s happiness does not depend on money. “Comfortable” is a subjective term, of course, but essentially their research shows that, if earning more money requires significant sacrifices from you, it’s simply not worth it.
Instead, across all income groups around the world, the one thing that is essential to everyone’s emotional wellbeing is personal relationships. Not surprisingly, people who invest more time and resource into fostering those relationships report higher overall satisfaction.
I’ve decided to become consciously aware how and why I choose self-centred activities at any given moment, and see what changes I can make to create a better balance. The results have been reassuring, so far. For example, every time I go out to grab a coffee, I make sure I either invite a friend, or give someone a call to hear how their day is going. The world doesn’t need another photo of a fancy cappuccino on Instagram, but a conversation with another human being can make a big difference to your day.
I’ve also started buying surprise gifts for my friends. It turns out, shopping for others is much more fun than for yourself. You start seeing shops not as a random selection of objects you can own, but as a world of opportunities to find something special for someone you care about. When I go to a book store to pick up a copy of the latest best seller to read on my way to work, I check out the cooking section, as I know how much my mum loves discovering new recipes. I scout London markets for second-hand vinyls for my music-obsessed friends, get museum passes for art lovers and discover new sweets shops almost every week on the hunt for the best brownies to fix my girlfriends’ latest heartbreaks.
I feel that the answer to a lot of our money-related problems lies in understanding how to spend it in ways that can inspire us. And there is no better inspiration that to make someone else’s day brighter.
So, next time you debate whether to get something unnecessary for yourself to boost your mood, think again.