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Scaling back, moving forward

| Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, 8:56 p.m.

In his book “Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy,” James A. Roberts examines our excessive materialism. Roberts asserts: “(M)any Americans lack the ability to imagine any life but one focused on the pursuit of material possessions.”

Looking at the Black Friday hoopla, it's hard not to agree.

“We work to spend and must work more to feed a never-ending desire for more,” Roberts tells me. “The average baby boomer heading into retirement has saved an average of $50,000. That's barely enough to get them through the first year, let alone the 20 years most of us will live past retirement.”

Even in painful economic times, we do have a lot more than we need. And perhaps it is because of this materialistic cliff that our government faces a fiscal one.

“iPhones embody the very essence of the ‘Shiny Objects' ethos,” Roberts tells me. “They are very expensive and need to be updated constantly to stay abreast of all of the new features and apps being offered. Apple has fully embraced the strategies of planned and perceived obsolescence to keep us spending more than we can afford. It's a classic strategy used in many, if not all, industries as a way to keep bringing consumers back to the cash register.”

It's why there's something incredibly timely about the talk of sacrifice in the air. Catholic bishops, who met in Baltimore last month, discussed following the lead of the bishops in Britain, who have reintroduced the discipline of abstaining from meat on Fridays as an “external act of penance, so necessary to fight the reign of sin so evident in our personal lives, in the world, and even within religious communities,” as New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan has put it. But it needn't take scandal, bankruptcy or a hurricane to remember the “essentials of life that no wind or wave can wipe out — love, faith, hope, life itself, family, friends, a future and a community that has let (people) know they are not alone,” as Dolan wrote recently.

“Living a life of meaning requires that we have the ability to exercise control over our behavior and desires,” Roberts reflects. “I feel that any real and lasting behavior change is preceded by a change in our attitudes. Once you have convinced yourself that money and possessions are not the path to happiness, you're halfway there,” he says.

“Shiny Objects” isn't so much a resource for condemnation as a catalyst for change. Fewer shiny objects this Christmas might give us an opportunity to enjoy one another, to move forward together in love, rather than in an exchange line, clutching gift receipts.

“‘Shiny Objects' was written with two broad objectives in mind,” Roberts explains. “The first was to make a compelling argument that more money and possessions will not make us happier.” Again, we may think we know this, but does our budget this month suggest something else? Once the disease is diagnosed, Roberts, a professor at the business school at Baylor University, offers a prescription: “The last four chapters explain how these new attitudes about money and possessions can be put to work in the reader's life.

“A moderate measure of self-control over our finances can bring peace where worry, stress and anxiety once reigned. My hope is that readers leave ‘Shiny Objects' with a new outlook on what real happiness entails and how this elusive state can be achieved.”

Kathryn Lopez is the editor-at-large of National Review Online (nationalreview.com).

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