Muhammad Babur: Money isn't buying happiness in America

I was thrilled and pleased by the election of the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, of Argentina, to become the 266th pope of the Catholic Church. I was especially delighted by his choice of taking the name Pope Francis, honoring one of the most venerated figures in the Roman Catholic Church, St. Francis of Assisi.

The name represents poverty, humility and simplicity, all of which are desperately needed to slow our relentless materialistic pursuits. A move toward simplicity is very necessary in a society where consumption is at the center of life.

I lived for a few years in Amsterdam. During my stay there, I had a tiny car and lived in a small apartment. Many of my friends and colleagues with decent social status and incomes had a modest lifestyle and happy lives. They had more time for their families and doing things they enjoyed.

However, when I moved to the U.S., my consumption habits changed. I have been doing my part quite effectively in our hyper-consumerist society. I live in a big house with a three-car garage. I own two vehicles, one of which is a six-passenger, gas-guzzling minivan. Like my Americans, unrestrained consumption of unnecessary things is part of my life now. We have become part of wide-scale environmental destruction machine.

Almost 20 percent of Americans trade in their automobiles every two years. Our homes keep getting bigger. According to one study, within last two decades, our home sizes increased from 1,500 square feet to more than 2,200 square feet. Nowhere in the world, even in Europe, Japan and Australia, are homes are as big as in they are here.


Consumer spending has become a bigger part of the U.S. economy and accounts for 70 percent of our GDP. However, our poor planet cannot sustain more than one large nation with such a lifestyle. According to one estimate, it would take four to five planets if all the Earth's 7 billion people wanted to live like the Americans.

Every time I turn on TV, I am constantly bombarded with advertisements urging me to buy things. An American adult sees 52,500 advertisements per year. Children are not being spared, either. An average American child aged 2-11 sees more than 25,000 ads on television a year, and billions of dollars are spent on advertising.

In pursuit of a good life, many Americans go deeply into debt to buy things they don't really need. Americans carry $11.4 trillion in consumer debt and the average household's credit card debt is $15,266.

Our government is no better — it spends our tax money like there's no tomorrow. The Federal government's debt now stands at almost $16 trillion.

Because we love to shop, we have to work longer and harder to earn money to afford them. We put in longer working hours each week than most other developed countries. Americans also take fewer and shorter vacations — and there's evidence that all of our working, earning and buying is making us any happier.

May be we should look at Bhutan, a tiny, remote kingdom in the Himalayas, for an example of communal spirit and happiness. I know, there is no comparison between America and Bhutan in terms of population and many other socioeconomic indicators, but the concept of happiness is universal.

Since 1971, this Buddhist state has adopted gross national happiness (GNH) rather than gross national product (GDP) to measure its well-being. The Bhutanese people believe in achieving a sustainable balance between the economic, social and spiritual needs of the people. In the last three decades, the country's focus has been on spiritual development and real happiness of the nation and not on financial growth.

This approach is aligned with several studies, which have shown there is no correlation between high income and happiness. Although wealth allows people to experience the best that life has to offer, it also takes away their capacity to enjoy life's little pleasures.


Undoubtedly, wealth gives us means to acquire what we wish, but at the same time, it impairs our ability to enjoy the simple things.

I'll close with a famous quote from Mad Magazine: "The only reason a great many American families don't own an elephant is that they have never been offered an elephant for a dollar down and easy weekly payments."

Funny, but a true reflection on the state of American hyper-consumerism.

Muhammad Babur, of Rochester, is a former member of the Post-Bulletin's Editorial Advisory Board. His column appears monthly.

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