Have we come a long way since the 1950’s in terms of happiness, success, wealth? We would like to think we have but research may suggest otherwise. Although we own more bigger and better products than we did 6 decades ago, we may actually be unhappier for it!
Depression and pathologies are more prevalent in American society than ever before. According to Oliver James in his book “Affluenza” an average American child today is subject to what would have been considered pathological levels of anxiety in the 1950’s. According to James we have four important needs which are not being met in the type of society we live in. These include: the need to feel secure, to feel we belong to a community, feel competent in our work and lives and to feel autonomous and authentic. The people who are the most emotionally distressed are those who digress from such values and replace them with ideals focusing on social/physical appearances, money, possessions and fame. (Prologue xvi-xvii).
I am discussing American society since this is where consumer culture is most prevalent. In this type of society everything and everyone is commoditized. For instance even the innocent CV. This is an example of the commoditization of a person and defining him/her primarily through the job roles that he/she succeeded in acquiring. The more, the better. The worth of a person is solely attached to how high their position is which can then be defined in terms of salary. The big earners are worth more than smaller earners. Work ultimately has no intrinsic value to it. It is merely the amount of money you can squeeze out of your employer.
So why are materialists more miserable than non-materialists? For a start, the goals of materialists tend towards the superficial. Instead of fostering internal goals such as meeting your needs of security, belonging, competence and autonomy which would be conducive to higher feelings of self-worth, increase in personal and emotional growth and increase in subjective well-being, materialists chase external goals such as making money to buy things. The secret mantra of any materialist is “you are what you buy.” Therefore, if what you buy isn’t the most fashionable, the most up to date, the most popular/prestigious product, you’re bound to feel down in the dumps. Since there’s constantly something newer, better, cooler being advertised, materialists will end up in a state of constant dissatisfaction with what they have.
Also there’s the process of social comparison. Everyone compares themselves to other people all the time. When you engage in downward comparisons, such as comparing yourself to someone less fortunate than you are, you subconsciously feel better about yourself. Most materialists, however, do exactly the opposite. They compare themselves to the CEO’s, the crème de la crème of society. Their definition of success is those who have made it to the very top regardless of how they got there. This upward comparison also leads to feelings of worthlessness and dissatisfaction.
Another pitfall materialists fall into is the belief that products can somehow change one’s life for the better. They have unrealistically high expectations of what a product can do for them. Instead of buying a shampoo to clean your hair, you buy a shampoo because it will transform you into a beautiful model like the one on TV. This then improves your relationship stance, your earning abilities etc. Instead of buying rubber gloves to clean dishes, you buy them because your family will suddenly start having dinner all together a la 1950’s style. Of course, this is fantasy.
This is the fantasy that big corporations and advertising businesses like to create. Consumerism thrives on individual’s emotional insecurities. Without insecurities relating to appearances, status and prestige, how would advertisers be able to manipulate us into buying beauty products, cars and luxury holidays that we don’t actually need? For advertisers it’s game about increasing profits, for us, it’s a way of life.
It’s a way of life that is making us depressed, anxious and chronically dissatisfied. But is it not us who are ill, depressed or overly anxious. It’s the culture we live in that is sick. Our emotions are a natural reaction to it, which medical businesses would also like to take advantage of by medicating us. Our feelings are a symptom of the disease of consumerism which has gone viral across the globe through television sets, music, magazines etc.
I would like to end with a quote by James E. Burroughs, PhD, assistant professor of commerce at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, and the University of Wisconsin’s Rindfleisch. According to him, “Material things are neither bad nor good. It is the role and status they are accorded in one’s life that can be problematic. The key is to find a balance: to appreciate what you have, but not at the expense of the things that really matter–your family, community and spirituality.”
DeAngelis, T. (June 2004). Consumerism and its discontents. American Psychological Association, 35 (6). Retrieved May 7, 2013, from http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun04/discontents.aspx
James, O. (2007). Affluenza. UK: Vermilion
Shopping (n.d.). Gloucester-RD. Retrieved May 10, 2013, from http://gloucester-rd.co.uk/shopping/