Monday, February 22, 2016

Content vs striving


I got hooked in to a documentary last night, when I should have been in bed, about how people in the UK allocate their spending money. Like whether private school was worth the money, or clothes with designer labels. They interviewed people from all different backgrounds and income levels and it was fascinating. But the two people at opposite ends of the scale were the most interesting (and a little sad) to me. One man, a Romney gypsy who grew up poor in a caravan, was very rich with over 100 million UK pounds worth in assets. He had several enormous houses, very expensive vintage cars, artwork. But when the interviewer asked him if he liked the artwork he said no, he had no attachment to any of it. He bought things for investments, then sold them when they had increased in value. He bought houses fully furnished without regard to his own taste. He was only interested in making more money. But what for? He didn't spend it on his son, who he wanted to grow up with a good work ethic like he had. Not even private school (he himself left school at 12). His wife cleaned the enormous mansions herself - no household staff! He gave no explanation of what he wanted all this money for, he didn't use it for anything except to make more money. Maybe the process itself made him happy, who am I to say?

At the other end of the scale was a family of six struggling to make ends meet. The wife seemed content to buy her clothes at op shops, getting food on sale and bulking meals out with cheap beans because meat is so expensive. Until the show sent her to visit a wealthier family for a few days. Not rich, but comfortable. She saw the children with the latest electronic devices, photos of holidays overseas, food with price labels that shocked her. And you could see her getting more and more dissatisfied with her own life. She surely knew that there were other people who lived like that, but I guess it's different having it laid out right in front of you. She got very sad as she talked about her endless financial struggles with no expectation of it ever getting any better. I think the documentary did her a real disservice. Her circumstances didn't change at all over the course of the filming. Only her attitude to it did.

It's so easy, isn't it, to look at what other people have and be envious. Whether that is material possessions, relationships, weight loss, other achievements. Facebook posts of their exciting holiday or the cool jazz cellar they went to or the amount of times they went to the gym this week. Maybe you feel like you're doing well, then you see someone doing so much better and your life suddenly seems worthless in comparison. And you think if you had what they had, life would be better.

Yet on that show, the poor wife wanted what the wealthy family had - but the wealthy family weren't content, they wanted more money so they could afford to send their children to private school (without sacrificing other things in their lifestyle). And the guy who had millions and millions, seemingly enough to buy anything in the world he wanted? He was forever making more, not content with what he had either!

But should we just sit where we are, being happy with what we have? Does being content mean stagnation? I think that as humans we need to find a balance between appreciating what we already have - and who we already are - and striving for more and better. You can be grateful for what you have while still working to get more... and then appreciate the new all the more because you had to earn it. You can love yourself and still want to improve. Indeed, "they" say you have to love yourself first, before you can progress.

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