Happily ever after

I remember this moment of sweet sisterhood in the bath. It was near the end of a run of sick-days for the eldest, and I was really ready for her to go back to school. I’d had a good whinge about it earlier in the day, cultivating discontent as I compared my reality with what I had hoped for (happy not-snotty children, patient AND productive mama, ideal mothering AND ideal working, tidy stylish house, blah blah blah). But in the early afternoon, as they played in the bath together, I was struck by the thought: One day I’m going to look back and think “those were the happiest days of my life”.

I don’t think I personally know anyone who works in advertising, at least I hope I don’t, because today I’m going to label that an occupation as a “professional happiness-stealer”…. Sounds like something out of one of those eerily dark fairytales, the remembrance of which still disturbs your adult sleep. (Baba Yaga anyone? Don’t google it).

I recently heard Max Lucado talking to Carey Nieuwhof (here) about this theory that the main aim of advertising is to make us unhappy. And I get that as a commercial technique – I’ve been known to try and create some FOMO of my own, working social media for church, but I’d like to think of it as altruistic rather than avaricious.

Problem is commercial advertising is everywhere, and it’s bombarding us with the message, “you shouldn’t be happy with your life as it is, it’s not X enough, so go buy this product/experience/lifestyle”. You don’t need to look too long at any kind of advertising to see this subliminal message beneath the surface.

At a recent and rare child-free visit to a cool cafe I cast my eyes over the collection of magazines on offer (because when you don’t have kids with you, you actually have time to look at magazines). And I noticed something different about the ads in these ones – they weren’t all selling me stuff, some were selling what seemed to be a non-materialistic lifestyle.

Large parts of the Western world have realised that more stuff does not equal more happiness, so there’s a turn away from classic consumerism towards simplification, sustainability, and minimalism. But in many ways it’s just another lifestyle we’re being sold – a lifestyle that the ads and product placements tell us has to come with pricey accessories.

The focus is still on the self, even if that self is looking a little more outwards towards creation care. You don’t see much of service, submission, and sacrifice in the pages. It’s just another form of individualism, another form of consumerism – but instead of consuming objects, we’re consuming experiences and meaning even.

And we’re always looking for MORE. Enough is never enough.

In his little book on the parables, The Dark Interval, John Crossan describes the great Western myth of “rags to riches”, pointing out that the happy ending is always super-abundance, and contrasts it with the prevailing myth of the Inuit people, where the happy ending is simply having enough.

That says a lot about what the Inuit people could historically expect from life in their harsh environment, but it also says a lot about the modern Western mind. Why can’t we be happy with what we’ve got? Why are our eyes always looking for more/brighter/shinier/newer/better?

We’d do well to limit our exposure to advertising, and to see sneaky advertising for what it is. But deeper than that we need to reject the cultural narrative that says we need more – more stuff, more experiences, more meaning to find happiness.

Maybe these could be the happiest days of our lives.

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