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Mistaking consumerism for happiness

If asked directly, none of us would say that we expect consumer goods to meet all our wants and needs. Yet it's hard to avoid absorbing the insidious ideology of "feel-goodism" (a term used by Steven Hayes), the idea that we can and should feel good all the time. Hayes described feel-goodism's implications in this way: "If you consume the right products, eat the right pill, drink the right beer, drive the right car, you believe that you're not going to feel anything you don't like." He adds, "that is not the definition of a meaningful life, and...people know it." We know it, yes, but many of us are still lured into consumerism.

Yet in other ways, consumerism does tap into better definitions of a meaningful life. "That consumption has something sacred about it is obvious from the central position it now occupies," wrote Thomas Berry. Using nearly theological language, Vincent Vinikas wrote: "Advertising is process. It inundates us, and in its perpetual waking, it alters the store of accumulated shared experiences of a people." He meant that advertisements give us a sense of belonging to a group and they help transmit and preserve cultural memories. With a sense of humor, Jim Wallis more recently noted the "constant barrage of commercials that sound increasingly theological: 'Datsun Saves,' 'Buick, Something to Believe In,' 'Kmart Is Your Saving Place,' 'Keep That Great GM Feeling,' 'The Good News of Home Heating,' 'GE: We bring good things to life.'" Perhaps due in part to slogans like these, Rabbi Jamie Korngold was able to quip that our society teaches us only two ways of dealing with spiritual dissatisfaction: "1. Buy more stuff. 2. Buy more stuff."

Why do we mistake consumerism for a path to real happiness?

Here are a few reasons.

Psychological fulfillment imitating material fulfillment

Some products, such as food, really do meet essential needs. Others don't. Amitai Etzioni said that material consumption becomes the "social disease" of consumerism once we seek products to help us achieve "self-esteem and self-actualization." David Berreby made a related analysis that our innate, "bottom-up" thoughts tend to be simple and animalistic ("like the desire of each and every one of us to eat pretty often"), whereas our complex, cultural, "top-down" thoughts include things we "never felt until [we] saw a movie or heard a song on the radio." These thoughts, though culturally manufactured, may still have a powerful influence on our behavior.

Material fulfillment imitating psychological fulfillment

We are drawn to products not because they really make us happy, according to Alain de Botton, but because "expensive objects can feel like plausible solutions to needs we don't understand. Objects mimic in a material dimension what we require in a psychological one." Take, for example, the psychological needs of a political activist campaigning for her strongly held beliefs. Coming to understand, refine, and communicate one's beliefs takes a great deal of patience. Rabbi Michael Lerner pointed out that, in at least one instance, "the fact that movement activists expected instant [moral] transformation reflected the way in which they had themselves been shaped by the instant gratification ethos of the consumer culture." In reality, moral transformation requires introspection, time, and hard work.

The promotion of consumer goods, in its mimicry of psychological, spiritual, and moral fulfillment, confuses those eudaimonic pathways with mere hedonism. One may begin to believe that superficial pleasures are crucial to abiding happiness. Kathleen Norris describes the "perfect consumer" as one who has become "less able to distinguish between needs and wants, between self-indulgence and self-respect." Such a person may actually feel burdened by a modern convenience, such as a vacuum cleaner, that has become a "necessity." In this way, one fails to see the product as imitating the fulfillment of deep human needs, and rather begins to believe that the product truly embodies that fulfillment.

Envy

Sometimes we want something just because someone else has it. We might not want the actual thing, but we are frustrated by the idea that the other person is happier than we are, or that they have more wealth or status than we do, and that they are therefore somehow better, or perceived by others to be better. Envy's role in consumer society has been discussed by priest and activist Ivan Illich.

Imitating other's desires

Sometimes we do genuinely want what someone else has. Andrew McKenna wrote that the advertising industry is based upon a "single organizing principle of mimetic theory" which is that "desire is contagious." In other words, commercial products aren't always valuable and individuals don't always arrive at our own opinions — we just imitate everyone else's behavior.

Group identity

Sometimes we don't merely want to measure up against one individual; we want to join a group that is having a shared experience of the same product and that restricts membership based on that shared experience. If you want to feel like you belong and count among "smartphone users," for example, you have to buy and maintain a smartphone.

Racial and class identity

"When you are white," Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote, "there are very few triggers for feeling your whiteness...unless you feel your class." She cited the adage that poor people like to think of themselves as "temporarily embarrassed millionaires." They may or may not realize that their economic status "isn’t what they thought it was." The situation is this: "White consumption responds to a deep psychological and social function. The white consumer is fighting for their very lives, as they experience them. If they are not consuming, then they may not exist as they imagine they exist: good, hard-working Americans that are one right decision removed from their rightful place of benevolent superiority." In other words, poor and middle-class white people like to imagine that they are very close to being rich; they essentially are rich people who just have to work a tiny bit harder, and the money will arrive any day now. Buying things, especially frivolous or luxury items, helps maintain that illusion. She concluded: "Consuming above your class position soothes the anxiety over white racial identity — what it means and what it might not mean."

“Like, why do so many lower income white people side with the Power Whites of the 1%," Stephanie Georgopulos asked, "instead of uniting with people who share their economic interests? Well, the concept of race was invented to prevent them from doing exactly that.” She explains: In the 17th century in Jamestown, there were indentured servants and slaves, and the masters feared that this oppressed class would grow too powerful if it included white people. So they began using fewer white servants and instead prioritized African slaves. The masters wanted poor white people to believe that they somehow partook of the privileges of rich white people. This indeed helped solidify the many privileges associated with whiteness; at the same time, whiteness alone never guaranteed anyone a good life. The racialized story told by the white masters was a lie. “When the color of your skin is packaged and sold back to you like a winning lottery ticket, of course you’re gonna be pissed when you can’t actually cash it in.” And furthermore, because racism is based on separation rather than connection, it frustrates human happiness. “The more a white person believes his skin entitles him to the best that life has to offer, the more meaningless his life becomes,” and likely “fail[s] to cultivate the actual skills needed to navigate the modern world.” White people already know and feel guilty about this, at least unconsciously. All this “time, money, emotion invested” into the lie of white supremacy amounts to a “sunk cost,” making them reluctant to give up the lie.

Based on an essay posted to Helium Network on Aug. 9, 2011. Helium went offline at the end of 2014.

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