I took a walk along the shores of a lake today, and aside from the aggressions of a local goose, I left wanting more. My family and I travelled to a nearby town in the high country – a scene replete with chilled mountain air, a serene lake, large green trees and cafes full of capable baristas. We strolled leisurely along the lake shores, discussing with my ever inquisitive 5-year-old the differences between walking and ‘strolling’. I wanted more of the feelings this time invoked, and at first glance, they were there for the purchasing.
Several houses had for sale signs, enticingly positioned on the lake’s edge and with relatively inoffensive price tags. I imagined myself sitting on the decks of these houses, sipping quality coffee and breathing deeply, a serene expression worn lightly and a faint smile full of deep self satisfaction. As the romance of this notion enticed me, I felt the tapping on my shoulder of that sensible but oft unwelcome friend – the one they call ‘reason’.
The simple truth is that that scene in my head was a false promise.
In reality, the background of that scene would likely include a crying child and perhaps a neighbour sneezing loudly; multiple unattended tasks circulating in my mind alongside the irritation of the houses across the lake not living up to the perfection of the view I had ‘bought'; the melancholy of knowing that the work I did to afford this view took me away from enjoying it; and the growing pressure in my bladder as the coffee did it’s work.
Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Peace would never be found in that view, or any other. I could never find respite in a vista if my family was in disarray or my personal affairs in a shambles. A sense of peace would have to be found inside the self, inside the family, inside the community. I could not buy that peace I envisioned, but more importantly, as if fulfilling an old proverb, I believe peace would evade me longer if I tried to.
If you live for having it all, what you have is never enough.
– Vicki Robin
In that moment, my desire was for a sense of peace. The promise of consumer culture is that I can buy it, so long as I make the right consumer choices and have (or borrow) the resources necessary.
This notion is dangerously misleading.
For one reason, it’s a simple lie. The old saying that money can’t buy you happiness is touted frequently, but as one commentator noted, people like to find out for themselves. It’s tempting to think perhaps the old wisdom applies to simply having a lot of money, but maybe there is peace to be found if we can just spend that money on the appropriate things. It’s this idea however which holds us back – the idea that we can find peace or happiness through changing the world around us (warzones and epidemics notwithstanding). Research by many authors confirms that pursuing money, wealth and possessions comes with a decline in overall well-being (Dittmar 2008, Kasser 2002), but there remains a degree of subjectivity in the personal application of this knowledge. We all know people we regard as more materialistic than ourselves, and few of us would describe ourselves as materialistic, so it’s easy to assure ourselves that these insights don’t apply to us; that we are not these materialistic people they’re writing about.
What effect does it have to value that house on the lake, to believe it might offer me that peace, even if I don’t buy it?
But what if we take it a step further and look at what happens if we simply change our values? What effect does it have on me to value that house on the lake, to believe it might offer me that peace, even if I don’t buy it?
The second and greater danger in the consumer promise is that, not only will it not deliver what you hoped for, it will steer you in precisely the opposite direction. Psychologist Tim Kasser has highlighted how values do not exist in random association, but may be understood according to ‘type’. He terms those values focussed on external goals such as money, wealth and status ‘extrinsic’, and those on relationships, personal growth and community ‘intrinsic’. Moreover, these values are not happy bedfellows, as an increase in extrinsic values brings a necessary decrease in intrinsic values, and vice versa (Kasser 2002).
This effect holds true with changes overtime. Studies of the citizens of Iceland during the full impact of the global financial crisis, found that those citizens who responded to the financial uncertainty of the crash with an increased focus on money and wealth experienced the predicted decline in overall wellbeing and resilience, and those who responded to the financial crash with a diminished focus on materialism enjoyed the opposite (Kasser et al 2014).
The implication of these studies is quite profound. The mere belief in materialistic values; the belief that life will be better with the right house, car, income or wealth level, is a toxic presence in our psyche. Not only can that house on the lake not deliver the peace I seek, but believing it can makes the peace even more elusive.
Consider what this implies about marketing messages. Those beautifully crafted advertisements for houses and luxury cars are an assault on your wellbeing; trying to instil in you something which is demonstrably harmful. That television in the corner of the living room starts to look about as welcome a cigarette dispenser for children.
That television in the corner of the living room starts to look about as welcome a cigarette dispenser for children.
This sounds like an old fairytale. Imagine an evil gnome offers a starving child some food, and each time the child accepts the gnome’s offer and reaches for the food, it gets further away. This is consumerism.
The only guarantee that the marketers can offer is that if one buys into their implicit offer of satisfaction through consumerism, one will never be satisfied. As a society and as a culture, our signposts ought to point in the right direction, and the promises of consumer culture are plainly pointing elsewhere.
Photo credit Shannon-S