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How to fill our lives with more meaning (and less stuff)

By Kobo • January 07, 2022Author Interviews

In his new book, All We Want: Building the Life We Cannot Buy, journalist and podcaster Michael Harris looks at the meaning of our endless appetite for consumerism—and offers a framework for building lives filled with greater meaning.

Why do we buy so much stuff? What do you conceive of as the itch we’re trying to scratch?

Every time we buy something that we don’t really need we are chasing happiness. That’s the promise every advertisement makes, isn’t it? This will make you happy. But there’s more to life than that kind of short-term satisfaction. To have a truly rich life we need to discover totally different ways of measuring our days—things like craft, and the sublime, and taking care of others. I was searching for those alternative stories about life’s purpose when I started writing this book.

All We Wantcame out just after Christmas, which seems like a pretty strong statement about where it wants to live in relation to consumerism. What do you imagine as the state of mind of a reader who’s ready for it?

The publication date does feel like a statement, doesn’t it? We wanted readers to see this book in the context of fresh starts, for sure. As for the reader’s state-of-mind… I honestly feel like most people have started questioning our old consumer culture. The dream of the twentieth century (infinite growth on a finite planet) is crashing into the reality of the twenty-first. So, I think the reader’s state-of-mind is one of openness and eagerness for change. Cultural change and personal change, too.

So while a lot of folks might be looking at all the money they just spent, and the stuff they have to find places for in their homes, and wondering if there’s a better way. But then maybe not doing anything about it and repeating the cycle in 11 months. Do you have advice for how to broach the conversation with loved ones about maybe doing things differently?

Guilt-induced change rarely lasts. Real change happens when we discover that we actually prefer the alternative. So, why not try nurturing some new interests? Baking, hiking, volunteering… At Christmas, a simple price-limit on presents can go a long way, too. It reorganizes Christmas morning so that gifts take up less time; that leaves more time for catching up, going for wintry walks, or playing Scrabble.

All We Wantspeaks to really big questions, like how does one live with meaning and purpose? Humans have been wrestling with this in different ways and in the face of different challenges for as long as we’ve been writing. Who are the writers you yourself turn to for guidance and insight on big moral problems?

Life is unbearable without irony and so I’m going to say the late Joan Didion and Jane Austen are my gurus. They both—in very different ways—teach you that life is always more than one thing. In contrast, the worst thing about consumer culture is that it does such a good job convincing us that life is only about consumption. It denies all other stories.

What advice do you have for the compulsive book-buyer?

Only to keep it up! The world has a lot problems but loving books is not one of them. ◼

All We Want: Building the Life We Cannot Buy by Michael Harris

In All We Want, award-winning author Michael Harris dismantles our untenable consumer culture and delivers surprising, heartwarming alternatives. Drawing on the wisdom of philosophers, scientists, and artists, Harris uncovers three realms where humans have always found deeper meaning: the worlds of Craft, the Sublime, and Care.

Part meditation and part manifesto, All We Want is a blazing inquest into the destructive and unfulfilling promise of our consumer society, and a roadmap toward a more humane future.

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