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Friday, April 10, 2009

The Key to Personal Freedom

Due to rising unemployment and the sharp contraction in the economy, personal bankruptcies are hitting record levels, up more than 50% from a year ago.
There is another factor here too, of course. Millions overreached.

In some ways, this is understandable. It's natural to want to improve our circumstances, enjoy the best life has to offer and "go for the gusto."
Without moderation, however, our wants have no natural limits.

True, some of us have fewer desires than others. Yet conservative spenders don't necessarily lack ambition, imagination or even money. More often than not, they have spent years cultivating an attitude of restraint.

Freedom, after all, is not the absence of responsibility. It is the absence of restraints imposed by others. To be truly free, however, we must generally impose severe restraints on ourselves.

That often means delayed gratification... or settling for less... or simply doing without.

This is bitter medicine to the thousands of consumers who hang on to their material desires like caterpillars to a cabbage leaf. Especially when the media glamorizes the materialistic lifestyle, their neighbors - who may be two payments from the edge - are living high, and advertisers bombard them daily with subtle - and not-so-subtle - messages meant to stir their cravings.

There is a reliable defense, however. And it begins with your frame of mind.
If you or someone in your family suffers from the "urge to splurge," here are four steps to help reclaim your personal freedom - and, perhaps, your credit rating:

1. Recognize that we are wired to feel dissatisfied with our circumstances. It's in our genes. An early human who was content with what he had - who spent his days lazing on the African savannah admiring the clouds and thinking "ahh, life is good" - was far less likely to survive and reproduce than his neighbor who spent every waking moment trying to gain some advantage.

2. Understand the psychology of desire. We all tend to "miswant" - to want things we don't really need and won't appreciate once we acquire them. Remember how your last major purchase failed to "do it for you" and you're less likely to believe that this time will be any different.

3. Stop regarding life as an ongoing competition for social status. Opt out of the game - even if everyone else seems to be playing it - and you can't be controlled or disappointed by the opinions of others. Do work you enjoy, even if it's lower paying. Spend your time and money collecting great memories rather than more stuff.

4. Instead of focusing on what you want, try appreciating what you already have. Nothing cures your craving for the next bauble like the thought of losing your partner, your children, your health, or the things you already own.

In "On Desire: Why We Want What We Want," William B. Irvine argues that many of us lack "a sense that we are lucky to be living whatever life we happen to be living - that despite our circumstances, no key ingredient of happiness is missing. With this sense comes a diminished level of anxiety; we no longer need to obsess over the things - a new car, a bigger house, a firmer abdomen - that we mistakenly believe will bring lasting happiness if only we can obtain them. Most importantly, if we master desire, to the extent possible to do so, we will no longer daydream about living the life someone else is living; instead, we will embrace our own life and live it to the fullest."

Sounds simple enough. Yet we face a powerful headwind.
Modern culture and our own heritage have programmed us to want ceaselessly, spend liberally and compete for resources in order to keep up with the Joneses. Millions today suffer from so-called "status anxiety."

Their prison, however, is entirely self-imposed. Unbeknownst to most of them, the key is right between their ears.

Any of us can make the conscious choice to turn our backs on the consumptive lifestyle and live simply, happily and with dignity.
Idealistic? Perhaps. But then freedom often is.
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