By contrast, very little attention is given to how to spend money well – by which we mean, in ways that stand a chance of properly increasing our sense of well-being and therefore justifying the sacrifices that went into earning the cash. The very subject sounds slightly absurd. Surely there is no challenge here, other than making sure we have enough (by which we mean, ever more) in our wallets.
In the developed world, true basics like shelter and food require only part of an average income. An important slice of consumption is therefore directed at things we don’t absolutely require. Some of the time at least, if we properly reflect on our experiences, this discretionary expenditure doesn’t quite bring us the satisfaction we were hoping for. Certain of the more spiritual voices will argue that the reason is obvious: the whole idea of improving our lives via something one can purchase is fundamentally misguided.
But there’s another possible explanation: that material things can contribute to satisfaction only if we understand ourselves pretty well. Spending successfully is something we need to learn. We need to undergo a process of Consumer Education, simply defined as the art of better understanding the links between what we spend and how we feel.
Why does consumption often go wrong? In part, because we don’t take our own feelings seriously enough. It’s odd – even a bit offensive – to suggest that we may not always have a very secure grasp on what we’re actually experiencing; that we could be doing things like buying technology, eating in restaurants, going travelling or choosing outfits and not sincerely be registering our emotions.
Yet, we are arguably often very lax about tracking what we experience. This kind of inattention is perhaps easiest to spot in the visual realm. A lot of the time, we see without properly noticing. Our eyes are alive to the broad features of the places we wander through, but our vision isn’t focused. That’s what can make art so powerful when it jolts us out of our customary visual lethargy.
Noticing all we don’t normally see.
On seeing what the German painter Albrecht Durer perceived in an ordinary patch of wild grass (in a watercolour from 1503), we can sense the difference between focused and casual attention. Durer took note of every blade of grass, and every nuance in the colour of the soil. We don’t need to be great artists to pay closer attention to the data from our senses. The core move of redirecting attention can be repeated in any realm of thinking or feeling, and – in this context – in the area of consumption. Take, for example, a holiday. We are never trained to study our own responses to a trip, in order to determine how we really felt over a nine-night span and what this tells us about who we are and what we need. We don’t feel we can learn much about ourselves from tracking the peaks and troughs of our moods: and don’t strive to adjust our spending patterns in relation to our feelings. Instead, we bump into our pleasures slightly by accident and don’t take either our boredom or our joys as seriously as we might – which makes us vulnerable to never refinding the ingredients of our own satisfactions…