Wouldn’t it be nice to have a bit more money? Wouldn’t it feel great to be able to afford those nice clothes, exotic holidays, maybe a nicer car or a bigger home. If these thoughts have snuck into your head recently, you’re not alone in making one of the most common underlying assumptions about life — that prosperity is linked to happiness.
Welcome to modern consumer society.
Gone are the days of our grandparents and great-grandparents who thought being frugile was a source of pride. Now it seems pride and social status come more from what you own. And from what you could buy.
In this episode, Clay and Sarah discuss how consumer society has transformed not only the world around us, but also the way we see ourselves.
Listen in to hear:
* The quote from historian William Leach that kicked this whole discussion off — that consumer culture confuses the good life with goods
* Definition of consumer society
* The impact of consumer culture on our environment
* The social impact of consumer culture as people’s attention is shifted to private involvement and away from community and public engagement
* Clay and Sarah’s personal reflections comparing past generations in their families and our lives today
* Reflections on the American myth, the equation of prosperity and happiness
* Psychological/Spiritual impact of associating ‘what I am’ with ‘what I have’
* How consumerism plays a central role in our identity formation
* Buddhist perspective on consumption
“A consumer society is characterised by its use of leisure time for spending money and for its belief that owning things is the primary means to happiness,” wrote Stephanie Kaza in her article ‘How Much Is Enough: Buddhist Perspectives on Consumerism’ in How Much Is Enough?
“More powerful than any cause or even religion, it has reached into every corner of the globe. It is consumerism.” Begins the video ‘The Trap of Materialism” on youtube.
It is this connection we often subconsciously make between happiness and acquiring things that gets us in to trouble.
Advertising, marketing and businesses selling products, experiences, even feelings take advantage of our underlying sense of insufficiency and replaces other spiritual or philosophical approaches to the pursuit of the meaning of life with a culture of consumption.
John de Graf went as far as to give this mistaken assumption a name — Affluenza, “a painful, contagious, socially-transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”
This culture of consumerism began in the late nineteenth century and gained even more of a foothold after WWII, so that reading books about consumerism from the mid-twentieth century often feels like many of the ideas are still as relevant today as they were over fifty years ago. For instance, historian David M Potter wrote as early as 1954, “Modern society expected a man to consume his quota of goods – of automobiles, of whiskey, of television sets – by maintaining a certain standard of living, and it regards him as a ‘good guy’ for absorbing his share, while it snickers at the prudent, self-denying, abstemious thrift that an earlier generation would have respected.” For more on this check out Jean Baudrillard’s The Consumer Society and William Leach’s Land of Desire.
Instead of simply decrying the terrible effects of consumer culture, Clay and Sarah end by discussing how all of us make small, seemingly unimportant connections between our stuff and who we are as individuals — whether that’s our clothes, the music we consume etc. So it’s an important question for all of us to reflect on.
What stuff in your life has the biggest hold on you? Where’s your soft spot? For Clay, it’s his truck. But what about you? What stuff do you associate with yourself, and deep down, feel is part of who you are?