Thursday, July 5, 2012

Status, Cars, and the Hedonic Treadmill

I was planning to compose a post for today in response to the whole “Busy Trap” flutter going around the chattersphere. I will still try and write that post, because the issue is interesting to me, but a discussion with a friend on striving for status made me realize something strange.

First of all, there are a lot of ways to define status. A house, a job title, a judicial appointment, a fair wage. But if someone says, “Status is very important to me,” most of us assume that that person is a big jerk. That they want to lord it over the little people and maybe run over a few peasants on their way to and from the gourmet grocery store.

But if, say, a high school English teacher said to me, “I want more status,” I would immediately agree that they deserve more status. Because part of status is respect. And if teachers want to not be viewed as idiots who couldn't hack corporate law, then that seems like a fair demand to me.

What I really want to talk about, though, is cars. Cars have a unique association with status for many people. If we envision someone consumed by the desire for status, we generally assume they drive an overpriced car.

Here's the thing. My car gives me a sense of status. I drive a 2001 VW Beetle, and I love that machine like a child. Looking at its vivid blue color makes me smile. Children and old men yell, “Nice bug!” at me, and I grin at them and say thanks. It makes my day. My car is basically a reflection of my aspirational personality. It's quirky and cute, but it is still a “Volkswagen” as the Germans originally conceived it. A car for the people.

Interestingly, I can only think of a few cars that people react to this way. People at the convenience store don't yell, “Nice Beemer!” even though BMW does undoubtedly design lovely vehicles. In fact, other than the Beetle, the only other car I know of that elicits that reaction is the Fiat. The Fiat, like the Beetle, is basically unusual in that it is an example of good, even iconic, product design for the masses.

And therein lies the real attraction of these cars and why, in my case anyway, they are completely exempt from the hedonic treadmill that demands we constantly acquire more and better stuff. I have had my Beetle for five years now, almost. I have never once in that time wished for a better car. (Well, I've often wished for a car whose “check engine” light wasn't permanently on, but that's a different question). The pleasure I got that first day on the lot is the same as the pleasure I get every time I see the car in the driveway. If I could afford a brand new Mercedes-Benz, I would buy a brand new Beetle instead and then laugh my way to the bank. Because the Beetle isn't just another car. It's my car. It's the car that I want.

That's what breaks the hedonic treadmill. Not a resolve to live in austerity, but taking the time to find objects that are exactly what you want. Not a cheap substitute for what you want, not just a means of displaying wealth, but an end in and of themselves.

What objects do you have that never lose favor? Jeans that fit just right, a can opener that works perfectly, a beautiful painting?

1 comment:

  1. This post made me think about how much I like my red Ford Focus. I think that I like it so much in large part because it is red, which is kind of ridiculous, but I just really like red cars. I guess I am easy to please.