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.


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

© Gary Haq 2010
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