In college, we are investing thousands of dollars to be successful. No matter what it is, we are all in higher education to achieve our own definition of success. And I have started to realize I have been using society’s definition of success instead of my own. I came into college thinking I needed to prepare myself to land a six-figure salary so I could purchase a large home and everything needed to fill it and live “comfortably.”
Over Spring Break, I was scrolling through shows on Netflix and my thumb stopped on “Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things.” The documentary explores the lives of minimalists that are finding meaning by living a life with less and rejecting the American view that material things bring happiness. I have not uprooted and changed my whole life because of this documentary, but I have gained a new perspective on what it means to be successful and happy.
A study done at Princeton University has found there is a plateau when graphing happiness versus money. Once an individual reaches a salary of $75,000, their happiness stops increasing as net worth increases. When you make more money than the plateau line, you have excess money to spend on things you don’t really need. These things can give you transient happiness but never fulfillment. Are the people we view as having the most money and prestige really the happiest? More money actually brings more problems.
We think we need extra material goods because we have been told by society that we do, but when we take a step outside of a world that is constantly spending, it is evident consumption is leading to corruption. The United States makes up 5 percent of the world’s population, but we use around one-quarter of every natural resource. Can our environment afford how much we are consuming?
More money provides easier access to the consumption of goods, which can be a dangerous cycle. You can’t get enough of what you never really needed in the first place. In the consumer-based economy that we live in, we are constantly being tempted to buy the newest thing — AirPod Pros, a membership at Pure Barre, an iPhone 11 or a Canada Goose jacket. Advertising and marketing provide a basis for society to quantify one’s worth. If you have an Apple Watch on your wrist and this season’s clothes from the name brand stores, then you are somehow worth more. Value should not be placed in the things you own, rather in the experiences you have.
Another dangerous cycle is letting work consume your life. Our minds get set on earning higher and higher salaries so that we can spend more and more. A “hustle culture” has emerged in millenials, and spending money is a way of justifying why they are letting their jobs consume their lives. People can become completely expended in this cycle and abandon the truth that there is more to life than work and money.
However, there has also been a movement towards minimalism in some millennials. Instead of investing in material things, they invest their money into travel and experiences. Rather than buying the largest home they can afford, millennials are purchasing smaller homes that require less maintenance. Those extra bedrooms would only be used when the in-laws come to visit anyways, so really they are getting rid of two problems in one. Less stuff, fewer bills, less stress, more life. Maybe less really is more.
I no longer define a life of success as a six-figure salary and a huge home, instead I define it as living a life of meaning and adventure. Rather than working an entire lifetime in order to achieve maximum consumption, I want to enjoy an entire lifetime with a little bit of work here and there. Jim Carrey addressed this issue best when he said, “I wish everyone could become rich and famous so they could realize it’s not the answer.” Enjoying a lifetime is going to look different for each of us because what really makes us feel alive is different depending on the person — maybe enjoying life for you involves traveling to all the U.S. national parks, having a large family, playing lots of instruments or racing in triathlons, etc. Whatever it is, do it as often as you possibly can.
Emily Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.