Of Having and Happiness

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The Stretcher blob, as designed by Malabarista

Someone asked "What is the thing you'd really love to have if only someone had the sense to make one?" I gave the matter some thought. It occurred to me that it might improve my quality of life to have a car that would drive itself, without needing any skill from me.

I struggled to learn to drive. I remember one driving lesson when I took a route across the pavement. At the end, my instructor gave a sigh of relief: "We've landed". However, I persisted and eventually passed my driving test. Then it was time to drive the family car – my husband's car. Now, I suspect that there are issues about cars and power within marriages that affect attitudes to driving. Be that as it may, the clutch of our car was worn out. I drove it once, felt that I wasn't really in control and waited for my husband to get it mended. It was a whole year before he changed the clutch, by which time I had lost the competence that I had built up. I have tried to return to driving since, but without much success.

So would I love to have a self-driving car? Not really. I potter around town on a bicycle, which helps to keep me fit and is an environmentally friendly way to travel. I doubt if I would reach the centre of town much quicker if I drove. If I want to go further it is easy enough to catch trains and buses, though I have occasionally resorted to taxis.

So what possession would I really love to have? I cannot think of anything. It seems to me that the consumer culture of our society has warped our impression of the importance of possessions. We've all seen those glossy adverts, showing handsome young men or glamorous women climbing into a shiny car and driving off down a deserted road through impressive scenery. The message is quite clear: the people who drive these cars are winners, with the implication that the rest of us are losers.

But supposing you went and bought that car, would it make you a happier person? You would have to tax it, insure it, maintain it and fill it with petrol. If you bought it on credit, you might struggle to meet the payments. Rather than zooming down a deserted road, you might be inching along in traffic jams and hunting for spaces in car parks. You might well find after a while that the buzz of owning a smart car wore off, leaving you disappointed and frustrated.

According to the New Scientist, some researchers at San Francisco State University asked volunteers to rate how much happiness they derived from their recent purchases. They found that people reported 'experiential' purchases, such as trips to the theatre or travel as bringing more happiness than material purchases such as clothes. Good experience brings more pleasure, and some good experiences are cheap or even free.

I remember the camping holiday in France on which we took our son Geoff when he was only two. Rain had left the rutted campsite tracks dotted with puddles, but all the colours looked fresh and sparkling, as if the air had been scrubbed clean. Geoff wanted to splash in all the puddles, but we told him that they were too deep, as he didn't have any Wellingtons. "No go puddles, too deep" he sang, as he splashed. So we swung him along, pleased at his uncomplicated enjoyment and his attempts to speak in proper sentences. Then, a flotilla of hot air balloons floated over, each as brightly coloured as a Christmas tree bauble. As we watched, this seemed to become a perfect moment, one of those you want to preserve in amber, so that you can treasure it for ever. Maybe we need to collect such perfect moments.

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