Possessed By Our Possessions. Does Being A Consumer Really Make Us Happy?

Possessed By Our Possessions. Does Being A Consumer Really Make Us Happy?

“Get in loser, we’re going shopping.”
-Regina George, Mean Girls

I can’t think of a single person who can’t relate to Isla Fisher’s character Rebecca Bloomwood in Confessions of a Shopaholic. Bloomwood is a twenty-five year old with an entry level job at a gardening magazine, $16,000 in credit card debt and some serious aspirations. Amen, sister.

The movie followed her as she dodged debt collectors, chased a job that she believed would fix her problems and negotiated life, while living in denial. I have to admit, at this point I was like: this is based on my life. Until I realised, I’m really not that unique.

The turning point for Bloomwood comes when she realises “When I shop, the world gets better, the world is better. And then it’s not anymore, and I need to do it again”. Like so many of us, she purchases new things to feel good about her life. The movie naturally takes a happy upswing when, with the help of her roommate, she joins Shopaholics Anonymous and starts to change her ways.

This whimsical story does have a serious side as we see Bloomwood grapple with the belief that she is what she buys. Inspired by the generosity of her parents who are willing to sell their new RV to pay her menacing credit card debt, Bloomwood is reminded that her relationships and her worth are not defined by what she buys and what she owns. Compulsive buying disorder is a growing area of interest amongst psychologists. It is believed to trigger the same dopamine release reward that any addiction would.

Let’s get serious. Characterised by excessive shopping and buying behaviour that results in distress, it is estimated to exist in roughly 5% of the US population, with over 80% of those being women. Anxiety, mood disorders and impulse control issues are all associated with this as well as a preoccupation with products and shopping. Carla Sosenko writes of her own experience, spending $98,000 in 6 months, in Cosmopolitan. Detailing how she would spend her time consumed by her purchase, searching online for a sale or a discount, all the while justifying the purchase to herself, Sosenko says that her mood would become manic just before “I put my thumb on the screen, felt the click of ApplePay - like a tiny heartbeat - and immediately felt calmer, albeit with a sense of worry circling just close enough to be uncomfortable about the amount I was spending. By the time the bag arrived a day or two later, I barely cared about it”. Sing it, girl.

Sosenko’s story is very reflective of the consumer culture that we are immersed in, yet very little is actually spoken about it. Terry Shulman, founder of The Shulman Centre believes that people are weary of over labelling everything as addictive behaviour saying “shopping is legal, and it’s greatly encouraged”, and how right he is! In 1929, realising that in order for the economy to grow the masses must spend, President Herbert Hoover’s Committee on Recent Economic Change decided that advertising was needed to create “new wants that will make way for endlessly newer wants as fast as they are satisfied”. The trend continued. Following the devastating 9/11 attacks President Bush even urged people to “go shopping for their families”.

Tim Kessler in his book The High Price of Materialism explored the effects of materialism on our personal wellbeing. Kessler has concluded that “people who strongly value the pursuit of wealth and possessions report lower psychological well-being than those who are less concerned with such aims”. 

“If cats looked like frogs we’d realise what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That’s what people remember.”
-Terry Pratchett

One such study conducted by Kessler used The Aspiration Index, which contains a wide range of potential goals that a person might have. This gives us an accurate idea of someone’s values by comparing one outcome to another. Unsurprisingly, when the results of the participant’s aspirations were compared with their reported well-being, it showed that participants who valued financial success in life had comparatively high levels of anxiety and depression and lower levels of self-actualisation than their more community-minded counterparts. Shocker.

They also found a correlation between a high score on the narcissism scale and poor physical health with those who have materialistic values.
In Kessler’s book, he shows that these results are not an anomaly. They were consistent across countless studies. Revealingly, another study cited by Kessler conducted by Patricia and Jacob Cohen showed a marked correlation between someone who fit the criteria for materialistic values and mental health issues of all kinds and varieties. Kessler claims that we could achieve greater overall well-being by striving to meet our needs, which are different from our wants. Needs are necessary for our survival and include things such as safety, competency and connectedness.

Russell Brand interviewed Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert on his podcast Under The Skin. Gilbert beautifully compared our consumer culture to Mount Delectable in Dante’s Inferno. For those that aren’t familiar with the fourteenth century Italian three part poem called Divine Comedy (often mistaken for the northern Irish pop band), Inferno is the first part. Famous for exploring the origins of evil, Inferno naturally has quite a bit to do with Hell. Mount Delectable stands in one of the circles of Hell and, not only is it beautiful and magical, but it contains all the pleasures known to man. Naturally everyone tries to scale it, but doomed to never reach the top. Sound familiar? Don’t worry, I’ve been known to don my hiking boots on occasion.

Returning to Kessler, it has also been shown we have a need for autonomy in our life and behaviour. This means that we like things to make sense. For example, if we are a nun looking for a change of career we’re hardly likely to go stripping. Well, it’s not unheard of, but it’s highly unlikely. Our wants are shaped by personality and cultures and often lead us to try and satisfy our needs in a way that is unhelpful for our needs - through the acquisition of piles of meaningless crap. Materialism can come from our needs not being met in the past, or it can be a learned behaviour if our parents and primary caregivers were materialistic. Psychologists also confirm that this could be a form of coping mechanism that aims to quell feelings of insecurity and anxiety.

“I’ve always said shopping is cheaper than a psychiatrist”
- Tammy Faye Baker

The Dalai Lama gave a talk in Washington D.C in 2005 in which he showed a correlation between the rise in the US GDP in the last fifty years and the rise in depression and drug use. This constant drive for growth in every aspect of our lives, except spiritually, has created knock -on effects in our collective mental health. While consumption is not a recent concept, the accessibility and reasons we consume are very different to what they were historically. Certainly when we look at the sheer number of people on the planet, all consuming at an enormous rate, we can see how consumption-based coping mechanisms are far from sustainable.

Maslow equates the population of the world to a bomb, as it has exploded in recent times. This growth is unsustainable and not only in terms of our resources, but coupled with recent technological advances that aid material consumption, it has meant we are devastating the Earth at an alarming rate. The world’s forests are depleting, the air we breathe is increasing in toxicity and animals are being hunted to extinction, all in the name of human comfort. The increase in population is also exacerbating the gaping hole in equality in the world today through starvation. One can look at the figures, but they do not convey the despair these populations feel.

Our society and clever marketing informs us that money and products will create the security that we so desperately crave. Consuming is an endless cycle that just results in an unending cycle of purchasing and discarding. Consumer products in recent years are becoming a central focus of one’s life. Without realising it many of us find ourselves working just to support our acquisition of products.

As a chronically self-employed person I know financial struggle. I’ve become the expert at avoiding anything that reminds me how dire my life choices have been and the reality that I’ve reached the age I have and have with very little to show for it. Lots of people at a similar age to mine feel the same. They too have struggled to save, fallen into the trap of spending too much on transient trendy clothes and just generally succumbed to sheep like behaviour dictated to us by the materialism Gods. 

A friend of mine always used to quote either Zig Ziglar, or Maria Davenport, - I’m not sure who actually said it, saying ‘money isn’t everything, but it ranks right up there with oxygen’. How right he was! No matter how many of us complain about it, we can never escape our need to participate in the acquisition of it. Society is structured in such a way that makes it impossible to live a life by your own rules. This world that once belonged to no one has been valued, monetised and capitalised upon. It is fascinating that we will spend much of our lives doing a job that does not fulfil us, just to support a lifestyle that we don’t even enjoy. Psychologists David Meyers and Ed Diener have researched the fundamental question ‘Does money really buy happiness?’ and discovered the answer was no.

From the materialist viewpoint, human creation is a competitive accident. Following such an accident one must toil away, accumulating stuff and partaking in very fleeting moments of happiness, competitively. If society was viewed as someone looks at a cult, we would think that this structure was bizarre, dangerous and completely crazy. Many people view religions and spiritual organisations as crazy, cult-like and troubling. Any scroll through the comments on yogic videos on youtube will show you the hostility and disparaging language that is used against the beliefs of those who worship the unseen. However, we all worship in our own ways, but most worship the capitalist system without realising that it is trapping them on a treadmill that is harming them. 

The Buddha taught The Four Noble Truths. These underpin his teachings and state that everything is suffering and all life brings suffering. Uplifting, right? There is truth in what the Buddha says as life is constantly changing and change. Humans are constantly in a state of seeking and grasping. They can never satisfy desire as what they seek is constantly changing and what they seek to keep is too in a state of change. Therefore all life brings suffering. He explained that the cause of suffering is the selfish desire and the demands we put on life.

He taught the path from suffering was eight fold, that begins with:

  • Right Understanding, or seeing life as it is.
  • Right Purpose, desire and thinking in line with life as it is
  • Right Speech,
  • Right Action 
  • Right Occupation all refer to living in harmony and unity with life, which can mean doing everything with kindliness in mind.

The last three deal solely with the mind and they are:

  • Right Effort which is self explanatory
  • Right Attention which refers to keeping the mind where it should be, which is on the positive and to the benefit of others.
  • Right Meditation as the Buddha explains that this is essential for purifying the mind.

Delusion, in terms of a Buddhist standpoint, could be identified as the cause of our suffering. This is the second noble truth. When we are deluded about our true nature, place in the world, or our actions, we cultivate unhelpful habits such as aversion, attachment, conflict and manipulation. We do this in the pursuit of wealth, pleasure, power and relationships that will hopefully satisfy what we need. This delusion keeps us trapped in our separation. Buddhism is thus considered a path of awakening and continued evolution, rather than a state of being. Realising that life is a process, not a constant movement from states of unhappiness to security and happiness, will help us to explore the choices we make now. Many of us operate in our daily lives seeking short term pleasures to try and ease the larger sense of suffering we have. But, we are using the wrong pacifier.

There is hope. One review by Tim Kasser of Knox University, showed that studies had reported materialism can diminish in people who receive interventions which encourage intrinsic values through deep inward reflections or which lead them to disengage and look questionably on the messages that are presented to us through our consumer culture. Materialism isn’t beneficial when it comes to one’s own personal development, relationship and selfless action. In this study, Kasser explores the idea that to pursue community, self acceptance and spiritual development makes it impossible to support a materialistic mindset as the values are counter intuitive. Kasser explored interventions that would produce a reduction in materialistic values and unsurprisingly much of the research suggested that employing a spiritual practise would result in reduced interest in terms of consumption. The studies utilised reflections through journaling and contemplation and mindfulness meditation. It was also suggested that sustained reflections on one’s own death were particularly helpful, but I’m not sure it’s wise for me to encourage that too strongly.

Our pursuit of our own potential is dependant on our perspective of the world and the potential of our species. Judging by the popularity of money, celebrity  and entrepreneurship books, one would view the potential of their incarnation to become a titan of industry or a celebrity or some similar vehicle by which they can create vast wealth. In this narrow viewpoint our life becomes focused primarily on our basic needs and survival and not on the wider potentials of man.  Our ego, mainly conditioned by society to feel fearful and ‘less than’, drives this perspective. It is this deception about our real potential and our connectedness that gives us the idea that self-realisation is somehow materialistic and industrialised as opposed to ecological and perhaps metaphysical.

A daily practise of some kind, that cultivates a sense of Self that extends beyond the materialistic trappings of image are the remedy to this particular ill. Practises such as mindfulness are particularly beneficial for identifying the qualities of our behaviours, aiding us to preferentially choose spiritual responses over our human nature. Through awareness we can free ourselves emotionally from the constraints of everyday life and with education and practise we can become aware of our own biases and assumptions that we place onto everything that we do. Grasping this idea shows us a world shaped by the motives and perspective of other people and not necessarily a reflection of what is best for us all.

Consumer culture is destroying our individuality, our communities and our right to live a life of our choosing. In this way we can understand why consciousness has never become such as relevant topic. Our collective choices impact whether we want to make our lives on Earth a heaven or hell. The spiritual development of the masses will play a crucial role in how we move forward as selfishness and ignorance are no longer a sustainable practise.


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