Spend Less, Appreciate More: A Few of My Favourite Things

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The other day I dragged my two-year-old daughter on a lengthy series of errands. She protested in the beginning — “Playground! Playground!” — but once the first storeowner slipped her a black cherry lollipop, she warmed to the idea of making the rounds. “Another store?” she’d ask conspiratorially as we walked back to the car.

We scoured the town in search of a number of quality” items: free-range chicken, bourbon, Kleenex, and a conspicuously expensive “peasant” bread. How unlike my grandmother’s shopping routines of spreading the coupon sheets across the kitchen table, where she’d be willing to drive to Giant Eagle Supermarket just to get the lettuce a bit cheaper than at Family Dollar. In my generation, and especially here in NYC, many of us are more willing to fork it over in the pursuit of quality.

Walk by any Dig Inn around Manhattan, a gourmet fast food chain, from 11:30 AM onwards and you’ll see such a line you’d think they were giving it away. Except they’re not — they’re charging $13! (sustainably and ethically produced food should cost more). My point is that as we demand better coffee, outstanding lunch options, and headphones that are concert quality, have we ever been less able to enjoy them?

Is it just me or aren’t we mostly shoveling this expensive food into our gullets in front of a screen in 10 minutes or less? Aren’t we drinking our single-origin coffee while walking, listening to a podcast, and responding to texts?

Step back a few hundred years and consider Queen Anne in the movie The Favourite. Though she was surrounded by the finest of everything, her general joylessness made appreciation impossible. Her staff faced an expensive and losing battle against her perpetual disappointment.

I’m no royalty (just an only child…), yet I am aware of the ironic disconnect between the craftsmanship of the goods that I purchase and the often lack of “craft” that I employ in consuming them. I suspect that I am imagining there is a parallel universe in which I will someday relate with my expensive pens or earbuds in a deliberate and quiet way, perhaps just turning them over in my hand before using them (there are no children in this parallel universe). Instead, it’s remarkable how many experiences and things are hurriedly tossed into the furnace of daily activity.

The point is not to avoid buying nice stuff. I love stuff! But rather to remember and practice that enjoyment and appreciation require synchronizing mind and body. Money can’t buy appreciation.

The rough formula is, I think:

Product/Experience + Degree to which we are Present = Level of Appreciation

Normally we pay the most attention to the first part of the equation; we obsess about getting the best thing or having the “top” experience. But we forget about the second part, which is how present we actually are for said experience.

I once read that, from a neuroscience perspective, we can significantly cultivate gratitude by savoring an experience for 10 to 15 seconds. That means that we stay with the sensory experience of looking out at the Hudson River, eating a cupcake, or holding the feeling when someone says something kind about us. All for the length of time it takes to toss another Bed Bath & Beyond coupon in the recycling!

The consequence of this is that you will do and buy less once you get ruthlessly honest about how much you can actually do in a day (just one thing at a time). There’s not as much time to do everything as we would like. Normally, the recognition of a time constraint causes us to hurry up and multitask. Appreciation ripens when we do the opposite: slow down and hold an experience in our senses (for 10–15 seconds, say).

There’s commercial incentive for us to multitask: the more ads we listen to, the more products we buy, etc. Don’t buy it. Our nervous system is as old as the hills. You can’t multitask good bourbon.

BTW, in honor of Valentine’s Day, my current favorite love song is “Château Lobby #4 (In C For 2 Virgins)” by Father John Misty.

Meditation + Alexander Technique teacher. Author of “Don’t Get Better,” forthcoming guide to sanity, humor, and wisdom during illness. dancayer.co

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