Naturally Unhappy Consumers

WE are all naturally born consumers. We consume to stay alive, to develop and to participate in community life. Yet today our level of consumption not only makes us unhappy but threatens our future existence.

WE are all naturally born consumers. We consume to stay alive, to develop and to participate in community life. Yet today our level of consumption not only makes us unhappy but threatens our future existence.

Early hunter gathers consumed to meet basic needs such as food, water, shelter and warmth. In contrast, modern day homo spaiens consume to meet specific desires.

Throughout history material objects have been used to demonstrate wealth and identity. Ancient Egyptians exhibited the wealth of their occupants in tombs.

Our joy of overconsumption can be traced back to Roman times, when substances called emetics were used to induce vomiting during banquets to be able to continue eating – a form of early social bulimia.

Consumerism has its origins in Europe. Early Enlightenment thinkers adopted the Puritan idea that everyday life was invaluable in itself and that God was to be honoured through work as much as prayer. They were committed to progress, human rights, liberty, equality, rational individual utilitarian view of nature. This way of thinking contributed to the industrial revolution and the increase in productivity.

In constrast, the Romantics emphasised aesthetic appreciation, emotional individualism, personal creativity and self-expression. While the instrumental worldview of the early Enlightenment (16-17th Century), the Romantic (18th to 19th Century) idea of an emotional, interior, expressive human beings became a main driver of consumption.

The consumption of goods became an important form of cultural appreciation and a means of self-expression. Emotions, desires and wants were given a new validity. It became respectable to succumb to both desire for, and enjoyment of, material goods. It can be argued that the birth of consumerism was the result of Enlightenment science and the Romantic view of the individual.

Economist, Thorstein Veblen, coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to explain why people seek status and consume material goods such as expensive jewellery, designer clothes and luxury cars that set themselves apart from others.

This is in contrast to consumption that derives its value from the intrinsic worth of a good. Material goods have become important in social comparison and positioning.

Consumer behaviour has been seen as being partly conditioned by sexual and social competition resulting in display and status-seeking behaviour. We tend to gauge our well-being in relative terms. Evidence suggests that indivduals feel worse off when other in their neighbourhood earm more. We need to consistently consumer to “keep-up wit the Jones'”.This is behaviour is seen as being pathological.

According to Professors Curtis Eaton and Mukesh Eswaran greater affluence can seriously damage a nation’s health – while we get richer we do not become happier.

Once a country reaches a reasonable standard of living there is little further benefit to be had from increasing the wealth of its population. Their work demonstrates that as a nation becomes wealthier, consumption moves increasingly to buying status symbols with no intrinsic value.

Eaton and Eswaran write:
Those with above-average wealth consume Veblen goods with a positive impact on their happiness. But those with below-average wealth simply cannot afford these goods, so they have a negative impact on their happiness. This is known as ‘Veblen competition’. As average wealth rises, people grow richer but not happier.

Their research helps to explain why levels of happiness and feelings of community in affluent countries have stabilised despite growth in real incomes. For example, despite spectular growth in income in post-war Japan there has been no change in average happiness.

As we own more status symbols we seem to have less time or inclination to help others which damages community and trust. This is essential for the economy and society.

Eaton and Eswaran conclude that our emphasis on economic growth is therefore misplaced. Conspicuous consumption can have an impact not only on people’s well-being and the growth prospects of the economy but also on the planet.

Our overconsumption of the world’s resources is being driven by an insatiable apetitie to consume more and more in the misconception that being richer, and distinguishing ourselves from others, will make us happier.

Only when we tackle this inherent need to consumer and reconnect with nature can we achieve a greener, fairer and happier future for all.

References

Jackson, T. (2006) Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Consumption, Earthscan, London.

© Gary Haq 2010
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Enoughism – The Route to Happiness?

When is enough, enough? Is it possible to become worse off, when we possess everything we ever wanted?

According to evolutionary psychology, our brains were created in the Stone Age and evolved some 130,000 to 200,000 years ago in the Pleistocene era when our ability to obtain food, water and shelter was limited.

happinessWHEN is enough, enough? Is it possible to become worse off, when we possess everything we ever wanted?

According to evolutionary psychology, our brains were created in the Stone Age and evolved some 130,000 to 200,000 years ago in the Pleistocene era when our ability to obtain food, water and shelter was limited.

These days we have developed the know-how to exploit natural resources and create goods and services. As a consequence, we find it hard to operate and cope in a world of abundance. Enoughism suggests that there is a point where consumers possess everything they need, and buying more actually makes their life worse off. It emphasises less spending and more restraint in buying and consuming goods.

However, this view has been criticised . It has been argued that our minds are not fixed in the past but are immensely flexible and develop. We have created and transformed our environment. It therefore seems strange that our brains are “wired up” to invent modernity but not to cope with it. If the brain is flexible enough to do the one, then why not the other?

Although we may be mentally more flexible we still seem to be locked-in into a modern society where many aspire to wealth and celebrity. Richard Layard in his book Happiness shows that there is a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want more income. Yet when our society becomes richer, we do not necessarily become happier. The evidence suggests that although average incomes have more than doubled in the last fifty years on average people have grown no happier.

images-1The Asia country of Bhutan has devised a Gross National Happiness (GNH) in an attempt to define quality of life in a more holistic and psychological terms based on Buddhist spiritual values rather than Gross National Product. The concept of GNH claims to be based on the premise that true development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.

Statistical data have been used devise a ranking of the world’s happiest nations. Top of the list is Denmark due to its wealth, natural beauty, small size, quality education, and good health care. At the bottom of the list are the countries of Zimbabwe and Burundi. world_map_of_happiness

There is now a grass root movement beginning where people are rethinking their consumerist lifestyles. Some people, such as Dave Gore , have pledged to take the 100 thing challenge and whittle down their possessions to 100 items. While in the current global economic recession people are thinking more of mending and making do with clothes and other items rather than buying new.

Economic growth has provided some people with greater choice and access to a wide variety of goods and services. Having more choice and more things does not necessarily bring more happiness. If anything, we value things less when they are in great supply. People living in the austerity of post-War Britain valued and appreciated food and goods much more due to rationing than we do today when they are considerably cheaper and in abundance.

Our cosumer society has resulted in many environmental problems which have affected our total mental and physical wellbeing. In addressing the root cause of many of today’s environmental problems we can achieve better environmental quality but also a better quality of life that may just provide the happiness that so many of us long for.

© Gary Haq 2009