Lars Petersson, President of IKEA US, recently presented results from IKEA-sponsored research that indicates Americans are buying less stuff for their homes and that this trend is expected to continue. The research also indicates that American’s are instead valuing experiences around the kitchen table more than cool products for the home and that spending less on stuff is helping American’s realize a dream that goes beyond owning material things.

Could it be that we are figuring out the key to happiness? Could it be we are sacrificing one household budget line item for another versus “wanting it all” even if that means spending more than what we can afford? Are we abandoning an empty dream?

Is Happiness an Illusion?

Over the past couple of years I have been giving a short talk on the science of happiness. Positive psychology researchers confirm that after covering the basics, material things—houses, furniture, cars, art, etc.—contribute to just under ten percent of a person’s level of happiness. Due to a psychological phenomenon called the Hedonic Treadmill, our minds adjust so quickly to our new acquisitions we need more and more new things to get the same emotional payoff. The secret to using things to increase happiness is to use them to create experiences. For example, your mountain home will not bring you happiness but the connections with family and friends you have there will. Of course you can gather at a public park and get the same emotional payoff but the point is, experiences are a greater source of happiness than material things.

I am grateful we are buying less stuff. I see this trend partly driven by the changing attitudes of the Millennials. Less stuff means less energy consumed to produce it and less of it going into landfills. It also prepares us for when we can no longer get cheap stuff; these days are coming soon if the US adopts more protectionist trade policies. Yet having less stuff will not make us happy either.

You’ll Never be Happy

As the Buddha taught 2,500 years ago, our minds always create craving. Whenever we reach our goal of having just enough stuff, we want more stuff. When we reach our goal of having less stuff, we will want even less stuff. In my book, The Business of Wanting More: Why Some Executives Move from Success to Fulfillment and Others Don’t, I say that fulfillment is a function of self-acceptance, connection, purpose and service and that chasing more and more of what you don’t need is a recipe for unhappiness. Yet even deep internal work and great relationships will not bring lasting happiness. These shifts may make you happier or bring you short term joy but your emotional state will just keep changing.

What is the Key to Life?

Rather than pursuing happiness, pursue presence. Rather than seeking various means of distraction from what’s unsatisfying in your life, slow down and experience what’s happening. If happiness is an illusion then shift your focus to being alive and present in the moment. Experience the ups and the downs fully, don’t miss an emotion and master the art of fully experiencing and cycling through sorrow.
Maybe the secret to life is to experience the full range of your emotions, to live according your deepest sense of purpose and to be in alignment with your natural values of compassion and service.