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Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy

Christmas shopping out of control? "Shiny Objects" may be your next best read.

By Kate Vander Wiede / December 14, 2011

Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy By James A. Roberts HarperCollins 368 pp.

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As hand-scrawled letters to Santa Claus make their way to the North Pole, menorahs find their way to the counter, and Christmas trees go up in the living room, thoughts across America are turning toward one topic: presents. The newest cell phone, the newest television, the newest fashions – we are making our lists of the things we want for the new year.

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In James Roberts’ timely volume, Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy, we are invited to check our lists twice – and then cross things off.

On one of the first pages of "Shiny Objects," Roberts asks: “Why, in a land of the plenty, do Americans want more? And why is more never enough?” This is the  question that "Shiny Objects" aims to answer. Through research studies, statistics, and history lessons, Roberts describes how “as consumers, we’re not who we think we are" – how what we say (that relationships and happiness are important to us) is often at odds with what we do (spend money or spend time working to make money), and how exactly Americans got to this point.

It all starts, Roberts tells us, with the American Dream.

“The traditional message of the American Dream was that through hard work, frugality, and sacrifice, anyone could achieve financial independence,” he writes. “Somehow we lost our way on the road to that dream.… Dreams of easy money have replaced hard work, thrift, and self-sacrifice.”

As Roberts takes us through America’s history – a section of the book that lags at times – we find clues to how and why we are in this predicament: from the California Gold Rush of 1848 (which helped promote America’s “get rich quick” attitude), to General Motors’ introduction of yearly style changes (“Americans wanted to have a car … that could say something about who they were or what their socioeconomic status was”), to the federal government’s legislation regarding homeownership. “It is truly a legacy of shame,” Roberts writes.

If history isn’t enough to convince us we’ve gone awry, the research and statistics on happiness and materialism could do it. There are the experiments that show people with more money are less willing to help someone in need, and that people need to be merely reminded of money to be less generous. There’s the Life Satisfaction poll, which shows that Forbes magazine’s “richest Americans” are equally as happy – but no more so – than the Pennsylvania Amish or Inuit tribe of Northern Greenland.

Then there are studies that show materialism is associated with higher social anxiety, self-criticism, and time spent unhappy, and the ones that show “materialists report more headaches, colds, and bouts of flu than their less materialistic counterparts.”

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