Philosophy Stoicism Wellbeing

Wanting The iPhone 11

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.

 – Epicurus

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!


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Philosophy Wellbeing

Docking Your Boat

Good morning, or at least it is morning here, now, when I am writing this. I want to write about having a tranquil moment as a practice of good mental wellbeing. 

That was a rather blunt opener wasn’t it?

I’ll give you some context. I’m sitting here, drinking my first mug of tea for the day, listening to my newest piano obsession, having just taken my bit of calm for the day. What I mean by that is a period of time, just five or ten minutes, to be able to sit in peace. At pretty much every other moment of our days, we are always doing something else, stimulated by something external. The only time this usually isn’t the case is when we go to sleep, but then again how often have you been watching a show on Netflix or listening to podcasts as you drift off. 

There isn’t much peace there. Not really. Distraction yes. Peace, not so much.

In many of my half-started scribblings (I frequently flesh an idea out in a journal before deciding to actually sit and write at a computer), I have praised these private moments of tranquility many a time. They are calm islands in which the ship can dock before once more heading out into the maelstrom. 

Dramatic imagery aside, what do I mean here, and how can it help you?

There are many metaphors used to describe our consciousness and our mental wellbeing. For me, and my understanding I tend to use two. The first I unashamedly admit is taken from Derren Brown and his fantastic book Happy: Why more or less everything is absolutely fine. This is one trotted out in my client sessions and talks a lot and points out that we tell ourselves stories. That much of how we think and feel about ourselves and the world is simply a story we have made up, with influences from certain areas. 

The second I use, I am not certain if it has a source or if it is an original creation, either way I give it much less ‘public air time’ but I shall do here. That our experiencing, conscious self is akin to a ship and crew sailing an ocean. This ocean is sometimes clear, kind and easy sailing, but on other occasions, it has been stirred by a tempest of emotion and misfortune. The wind turns against us, the ship is battered and the crew is strained. Now, a skilled crew and sturdy ship can weather such weather (forgive me); but the crew who is tired and the ship that is damaged? 

Hopefully you can see where I am going with this.

Many of us get out of bed in the morning, or perhaps halfheartedly crawl (I used to hear my alarm go off and, whilst lying face down, repeat to myself, in the style of Trinity from the Matrix: “Get up Alex. Get Up. Get Up. Get. UP.”) and immediately start my day. 

Breakfast, shower, teeth, dress, commute, work, sit in the toilet to avoid work, work, break, work, lunch, stare at a wall or my phone, work, make a tea, work, commute, kiss (then) girlfriend, Netflix, dinner, Poirot or Jonathan Creek to fall asleep.

I found myself feeling under strain and sad quite easily. Is it any wonder. Where in that routine was there somewhere my poor crew and ship could have a break? “Well, when you were sleeping!” I hear you cry. And yes, that would be a fair point to concede. I argue back that sleep is the rest but not the resuscitation. In the day I highlighted above, there was no space for one to be at peace, to reflect on oneself, and have a moment of conscious calm. We tend to restrict that to relaxation holidays, lying on a beach or by a pool. More and more, and of course you may do this already, meditation has become a popular practice. 

And I can see why, after all it is spoken of glowingly by attractive people (often physically, but socially too). Yet how often have I spoken with clients who say they meditate but don’t find the time to do it regularly, and even those who meditate twice or even three times a day sometimes are no better than the most overworked C-level executive. 

So what am I getting at here?

What is it that makes a successful meditation session, that also connects my little mental island of peace. Nothing. They provide one and the same. I do not connect well with meditation as it is promoted, guided or otherwise. For me, my island of tranquility is sitting in my pyjama’s and dressing gown, drinking a cup of tea or coffee and spending 10 minutes just sitting and listening to gentle, calming, soulful piano music. To experience a subtle shift of emotions that makes me feel delightfully human. And then, most importantly, to just write whatever is on my mind. To engage in a period of self-reflection and instruction.

This is the equivalent of ensuring the crew is ready and the ship is in good order before setting forth into the days ocean. If the night has been unkind to the ship (for instance because of poor sleep or an argument with your partner that has bled over until the morning) then it’s a sensible, as well as a kind and considerate, thing to do. It means lingering emotional stress can be dealt with and we can fortify ourselves for the day ahead.

By giving ourselves just 10 minutes, at some point during the day (though at the start I find to be most invigorating) means that we have had, no matter what, a moment that was purely for us. Enjoyable. Peaceful. Tranquil. Necessary.

Everyone has 10 minutes for themselves. Away from distractions and stresses. Where you can practice distancing yourself from an issue in order to achieve a calm, quiet mind. Thats a good practice to have. Meditate if you want to and enjoy it; but if you don’t, just a cup of tea and some quiet does the job just as well.

Stop off on an island every now and then. Your ship and crew will thank you for it.