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Mistaking consumerism for happiness

Most of us do not consciously expect consumer goods to give us everything we want and need in life. However, consumerism insidiously promotes an ideology of what Steven Hayes has called "feel-goodism," the idea that people 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."

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 two likely reasons.

First, 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.

Second, buying things makes us feel close to others and part of a group. 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.

Of course, some material products such as food really do meet essential needs. 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 are not necessarily any less influential for being culturally manufactured.

We have just outlined two kinds of imitation involved in consumerism: material fulfillment imitating psychological fulfillment, and people imitating each other's desires. These correspond to the afflictions of those whom priest and activist Ivan Illich has called "prisoners of addiction" and "prisoners of envy," the two kinds of slaves in "consumer society".

Originally posted to Helium Network on Aug. 9, 2011.

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