Consumerism Won’t Make Us Happy. Here’s What Will…
By Carolanne Wright
As Americans, we seem to have lost our way where happiness is concerned. Over the last hundred years, we’ve become confused about how to create true joy in our lives — and we’re miserable for it. Long hours of work to buy stuff that, truth be told, we really don’t need but feel compelled to purchase. This fallacy of “consumerism equals satisfaction and contentment” didn’t just spring from out of nowhere. Rather, billions have been spent by the advertising industry to cultivate that myth. Nor is our special interest-driven political machine in the U.S. helping by its relentless push for continued economic growth, which we’ve been conditioned to believe is necessary for well-being.
What is conveniently overlooked in this mad rush towards consumerism and perpetual growth is the effect both have on the environment, our families, communities and feeling of belonging — not to mention our health. Where does it end?
Fortunately, a quiet revolution is taking place behind the scenes: sustainable happiness. Instead of consumption and expansion, the idea of sustainable happiness is based on building “a healthy natural world and a vibrant and fair society.” It’s not at the mercy of good or bad times, but endures because this form of happiness is supported by the fundamental aspirations of being human. Loving relationships, thriving ecosystems and human communities, meaningful work and simple practices like gratitude, all come into play.
A Brief History of the “Gospel of Consumerism” and American-Style Happiness
In Sustainable Happiness: Live Simply, Live Well, Make a Difference, the origins of America’s obsession with consumerism and growth are examined in detail — with often surprising revelations.
Believe it or not, America wasn’t always a consumerist society. Back in the 1920s, business leaders began fretting that Americans were becoming too content, that they had acquired all the consumer goods they wanted. “Executives and pro-business politicians thought the economy would stall if people chose to spend time enjoying life rather than working more and buying more.”
To address this “problem,” advertisers and Freudian psychologists came together and developed a plan to take our human desires of status, love and self-esteem, and merge them with the newly minted “Gospel of Consumerism.”
“Wants are almost insatiable,” claimed President Herbert Hoover’s report on the economy, published just months before the 1929 crash. “One want satisfied makes way for another…. We have a boundless field before us; there are new wants that will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied… by advertising and other promotional devices, by scientific fact finding, by a carefully pre developed consumption a measurable pull on production has been created… it would seem that we can go on with increasing activity.”
So the advertising industry set about to overhaul our beliefs about happiness. One Freudian psychoanalyst, Ernest Dichter, who was involved in the agenda, observed at the time: “To some extent, the needs and wants of people have to be continuously stirred up.”
The plan worked.
“Today, an iPad, the right vacation, or the latest sneakers have become prerequisites for getting respect. Certain brands of beer are synonymous with friendship and a sense of community. An oversized house points to status and proof of your earnings and ability to provide for a family. These are all, of course, ideas created by advertisers whose clients profit when we buy more than we need.”
But, as Sustainable Happiness points out, consumerism has significant consequences. We increasingly ‘need’ bigger houses, more expensive cars, clothing and lifestyles. We become addicted to the “buyers high.” But, in the process, we accumulate more debt, which in turn requires us to work longer hours — taking away precious time from our family and friends.
And it’s not just those making a decent income that are caught in this trap — the working poor are also hooked into the idea that their worth and happiness is directly linked with how much they own.
“When people lack money, but are told that more stuff is essential to their happiness, low prices become paramount. Local businesses are driven into bankruptcy by big-box stores that can slash prices by paying rock-bottom wages. Production workers find themselves unwilling participants in a race to the bottom for the lowest wage. Employers pick up and relocate if wages and safety standards are lower somewhere else or if workers begin organizing a union.”
Consumerism takes an incredible toll on the environment as well. Due to human activity, species are going extinct at 1,000 times the rate that would normally happen in nature, industrial chemicals are polluting the planet and its inhabitants, huge patches of garbage circulate in the ocean, enormous amounts of fossil fuels are burned and forest are clear cut — all in the name of consumerist ‘progress.’ Make no mistake, everything is affected — including access to clean water and our food supply. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Sustainable Happiness 101
To become truly happy, we have to first recognize that we are part of a larger tribe — in other words, the human race. Taking active steps to reduce war, racism, hate and abuse is the cornerstone of happiness, not just for ourselves, but for our collective species. We also need to protect our home — planet earth. We work to conserve our ecosystems so that everyone can enjoy the life-giving elements of clean water and air, along with healthy, non-toxic food.
On a smaller scale — but no less important — we cultivate positive habits in our lives. Regular exercise, spending time in nature, a daily practice of gratitude and encouraging mindfulness all contribute to collective well-being. We also find work we love, address our addictions, live simply and give the gift of time.
We can embrace the South American idea of buen vivir (the good life), which recognizes that well-being cannot come from the individual pursuit of happiness. Instead, it’s an orientation of living peacefully with our families, and fostering relationships of respect and reciprocity with our neighbors, community and natural environment. Buen vivir is such a valued idea that it has become an integral part of the constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador.
Likewise, Bhutan has embraced a similar idea with gross national happiness — defined as psychological well-being, health, education, community vitality, ecological fitness, cultural diversity and sound living standards.
“If we look at things holistically, based on health, community connection, arts and culture, the environment, we will govern the country differently,” says John deGraaf, a co-founder of the Happiness Alliance. “We will understand that success comes more in societies that are egalitarian, that have great time balance—short hours and shared work, strong social safety nets so people feel secure. We’ll have greater confidence in government and greater trust in each other.”