We’ve all heard the old saw “Money can’t buy you happiness.” It may be a cliche, but did you know that research has shown it to be true?
People with more money and possessions are no happier than those with less, apart from those actually in poverty. Once we have enough to care for our basic needs, owning things simply does not improve our well-being.
I’ve long heard this and accepted it to be true. It’s pretty easy to swallow, even if it’s the complete opposite of what we see, read, and hear in advertisements every day.
But what if it goes even further than that? What if a consumerist mindset doesn’t just fail to make us happy, but actually impedes our happiness?
This is a position the psychologist Tim Kasser takes in his short book, The High Price of Materialism.
We all need the same things.
Tim Kasser posits that there are three basic psychological needs that all humans share. They are (1) security, (2) self-esteem, and (3) a connection to others.
The problem is, we trick ourselves into believing that these needs can be satisfied by the pursuit of material goods. this leaves us less time and energy to devote to actually satisfying those needs. Of course, this in turn makes us even less happy, and even more vulnerable to attempting to fill the void by pursuing wealth and buying more.
As I read this book, of course my thoughts turned to sewing (as they often do). Sewing is to some extent about acquiring more things, be they clothing or household items. Of course, we make them rather than buy them. But still, I began to wonder, could sewing more and more stuff be just as much of an emotional dead end as shopping? A momentary high when you get something new, but not followed by any sort of lasting happiness? Is that all it is?
The answer is no.
Here is why I think the emotional effects of sewing are the complete opposite of materialism. Let’s think about the three main kinds of needs mentioned:
Ok, so being able to sew your own clothes probably doesn’t affect your physical security very much, unless perhaps we’re forced into such dire circumstances that we must be able to fashion clothing from flour sacks.
But in his book, Kasser shows that feelings of insecurity cause us to adopt consumerist habits as a coping mechanism. We buy, often times, because we are afraid of something much scarier than we realize. Growing old. Not protecting our families. Dying. That’s why so many advertisements prey on insecurities and fears, isn’t it?
But let’s face it, shopping is generally a pretty lousy coping mechanism. Instead, we can channel those feelings into a creative pursuit, which I think is much healthier and actually improves our well-being, even if it doesn’t solve our fears.
Self-esteem is a complicated business, but a big part of it comes from “successfully using one’s competencies and abilities to attain one’s goals.”
Learning and building skills, gaining competency, and successfully completing even the simplest projects has very real effects on how we feel about ourselves. It improves our confidence and makes us believe in ourselves. Contrast this with the more fragile sort of self-esteem that is based on what other people think of you and the things you own.
One is deep and lasting and comes from within you. The other can be shattered at any moment.
Putting too much stock in material things causes people to value objects and possessions above other people, family, and community.
But sewing, or any craft or creative hobby really, actually gives us an opportunity to create community. Just like this site. Or communities like Pattern Review. Or your neighborhood fabric shop.
As sewists, we can ask each other questions, commiserate over problems, cheer each other on, and inspire each other with our projects. It gives us a very real way of bonding with like-minded people.
Not only that, but it connects generations of people together. How many of us learned to sew from our mothers and grandmothers? This passing of traditions seems so important, not just for the traditions themselves, but for us.
So, can sewing really make us happier?
I think these points apply not just to sewing, but to a huge range of DIY activities, from crafts to growing food to building things with hammer and nails. Whatever your choice of creative activity, there is something about these kinds of practical arts that is deeply emotionally satisfying in a way that a trip to the mall can never be.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think DIY is the one and only path to a good life. But I do believe making things on your own is a grounding experience, and one that can connect us to other people and the best parts of ourselves.
I’d love to hear what you think. Does sewing improve your life in a real way, apart from the physical stuff you get out of it?