Apple has, at the time of writing, just announced its newest smartphone, the iPhone 11 and variants. This has, of course, proceeded with all the usual fanfare, and prompted my own yearly self-examination. Namely that examination into why I want a new one.
This may seem like an odd thing to write about, yet I think it is actually the right moment to write about this particular subject. Not the subject of the iPhone, but the subject of wanting one. Of wanting anything of the sort. Perhaps its best to begin from my current standpoint (and maybe yours as well) and then explore what could make us feel desire for a product that logically we know to be no better that our current magical piece of metal that connects us with the world
I currently own a phone that is two years old, the iPhone 8. I chose this phone instead of the more extravagant iPhone X at the time as a negotiation with myself. I read up on them carefully and though I desired the new appearance of the X I realised that, a camera aside, they were essentially the same phone, and not worth the price (then again, technology wise, I could make the same argument for my current phone). This was a decision I remember inwardly agonising over. I thought about how lovely it would be to have the new design, the extra camera to finally unleash the inner photographer I knew was there.
I desired it. I will admit, I also desired the slight uptick in social standing that would accompany the phone for a time. It would be a talking point. I would imagine myself, with new phone and new glow. It had made me seem slimmer in my imagination, and more muscular too. When I walked with it, I had a swagger otherwise not present. I was undoubtedly a more attractive version of myself. My (then) girlfriend would have no doubt been instantly more attracted to me (even though she is the wonderful kind of person who never cared for that sort of thing).
This was a self image I had constructed based upon the artificial desire created by a company. It’s not just Apple, Samsung, or any of the other technology giants that do it to us. It is everywhere. The oldest, most common technique in sales is to identify a need and then show the client how you have the solution. I used to work in advertising sales many years ago. At the core of the whole conversation, would be an attempt to find out what hurts in their business and show them how advertising in our paper would take the hurt away.
The genius of Apple et al. is that the hurt, the pain, is a social one. We are social creatures, and live in societies of constantly comparing ourselves to others (thanks to Facebook, Instagram etc.). To not have the newest gadget is to be left behind and invite judgement akin to being back at school and not being a part of the latest fashion. I distinctly remember feeling left out at primary school when the whole school was mad on yoyo’s and I didn’t get the message. Managing to procure one a week later I couldn’t do anything remotely impressive with one and was still unpopular, before naturally, the whole fad ended a week after that.
The pain is all the worse as we relate to the people who buy these things. We don’t begrudge a footballer or a movie star the expensive taste as they clearly have the financial might, but people we work with or are friends with? We invite jealousy into our lives with that nasty unconscious thought ‘why should they have it and not me? We are the same…aren’t we?’
This is precisely the same as our current obsession with technology. The new phone is fawned over for a few weeks before a new one is announced. We have got used to it in a few days, feeling much the same about it as we did about our phone before. Whilst there may be a small burst of pleasure every time someone asks “is that the new iPhone? Is it good?” there is nothing else. This is the same with clothing (I distinctly remember just a few months ago desperately wanting to buy a particular pair of shoes that I was certain would make me look handsome and elegant like Eddie Redmayne). Yet once the pleasure of acquiring goes away (usually after we have worn/used/presented whatever thing we have bought once), we are left feeling much the same as we did before.
Had I bought the more expensive phone two years ago, I would have been the same weight, walked the same way, with just as wonderful a (then) girlfriend). We construct a story about why having the thing is so much better than not having it. But as we do not want to admit it is because of the social implications of a new phone, or desiring positive comments about the way we look, we invent reasons.
“It will be good for my business to take better pictures or videos”
“If I look smarter people will think I am more respectable’
“A new laptop will make me more productive”
I think you get the idea.
This cycle of wanting, fulfilling, and wanting again is often referred to as the hedonic treadmill. This is the notion that humans will always revert to a base state of happiness. Something good or bad happens, we feel good or bad, and then revert to normal. I believe there needs to be an addition to this. By staying within the cycle, we condition ourselves to associate feeling happy and positive with fulfilment of these shallower wants. But our standard level of happiness remains the same. We disconnect ourselves from paying attention to our deeper needs by focussing on what some companies cleverly tell us we want.
The promise of popularity. Of an easier, more attractive life.
To escape the cycle, to get off the treadmill, is to be willing to recognise this as the primary desire we are feeling. And to recognise that we can opt out of it. We can choose to not buy the phone/laptop/shoes. It is always within our power to decide how something affects us, emotionally. So we can decide to remain unaffected by the new phone being released. Especially when it costs around £1000. We can resist the shoe, the laptop, the fad.
And we can feel proud of ourselves for mastering what we know to be a shallow desire. Two years ago I negotiated myself down to the least impressive new phone. This year I plan to negotiate with myself to be just as satisfied with what I have. Epicurus, though not a Stoic, puts it well, and I owe Derren Brown’s fantastic book Happy for bringing this quote to my attention:
Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.
This is very true. I referred to a phone as a magical bit of metal earlier and it truly is. They are performing things that were only in the realm of science fiction when I was growing up. Whenever I see someone paying for something by using their phone at a shop, or stop and think about the fact I am accessing the entirety of the internet on my phone, I am once again filled with a bit of childlike joy at the thought. These things are already incredible and magical. I can be satisfied with that.
So, around this time of year when new phones are announced and we start feeling like we want one, it is a good thing to turn our attention inwards and examine why. There is no question anymore they are vastly overpriced, with ethical considerations about their manufacture, contribute to a habit of consumption and obsolescence that in the modern world we should be moving away from (my fathers disgruntled question of ‘why don’t they build things to last anymore’ I find myself identifying with). But finally, they condition us to seek happiness and worth through the acquisition of goods.
They may make life a bit easier, but no happier. For that we need to look inwards. And true happiness is being satisfied with what we have. We often say, usually in reprimand to someone who is spoiled, that they ‘want for nothing’. But in that statement is a huge truth. If someone ‘wants for nothing’ then they are happy.
Learn to want for nothing. You, most likely, already have what you need.
Please comment on this post, like it and share it around…and if you have something you’d like me to write about in particular let me know and I’ll make it happen!