Jul 10, 2012

The Price of Consumption-Based Happiness


Market-based capitalism has been the corner stone of the American story and identity for decades.  It has been so ingrained in the American culture and way of life that questioning it can sometimes invite the unpatriotic label.  The symbolism aside, this economic model has been the engine for much of America's economic dominance in the world and higher quality of life for its people as well great innovations that benefit society.  That said, the modern American capitalism or more appropriately called consumerism  has had its fair share of negative side effects.  Here are a few:

  • More than 1 in 5 American adults now takes at least one type of medication to treat a psychological disorder, a 22% rise since 2001, according to new statistics released by Medco Health Solutions, which monitors drug trends in insurance claims.(Via TIME)
  • 28.8% of Americans will suffer anxiety in their lifetime - the highest level in the world. (Via WebMD)
  • In 2010, more than 60% of the Untied State was overweight or obese. It is estimated that if the current trend continues, 50% of the population will be obese by 2030. (Via NPR)

The Individual Consumer 

Our consumer-based economy thrives on consumer spending and borrowing, namely people purchasing products and services. That's why one of the leading indicators of economic health is the Consumer Confidence Index (CCI) which measures consumer spending patterns over a period of time. Furthermore, people are measured by their credit score which evaluates an individual’s creditworthiness based on his or her history of borrowing and paying back.

As such, our economic system, fueled by the stock market's emphasis on profit generation and market maximization, evolved to create products and marketing schemes that promote an alignment with our happiness thereby creating the modern consumer. Million of dollars have gone into advertising and marketing to convince people that consumption can lead to immediate happiness, satisfaction, and pleasure. These campaigns included images of people smiling, laughing and "looking" or giving the "impression" of being happy while consuming a certain product or service. This economic evolution from private enterprise to one based and focused on consumer spending required a change of view from collective to individualistic and a constant obsession for instant gratification. We might have been satisfied with a peaceful life on our own farm with our families, but corporations convinced us that we needed happiness, lots of it, at all times. Moreover, they defined the exact process for us to attain this so-called "happiness" through infinite consumption. We needed a nicer house, nicer car, nicer clothes, nicer body, nicer everything to feel happy. As such, beginning in the 1950's, the U.S. economy began to thrive due to in part World War II and government spending, but also as a result of this slow shift to a culture of obsession with happiness through consumption.   

So the shopping or consumption experience has two phases.  First, it's the anticipation phase where we get pleasure from anticipating the purchase and going shopping and second is the gain in status we feel by owning and showing off our new status symbols. The excitement of buying something might be short-lived, but the pleasure we get from showing it off to our different social circles and networks can last a bit longer or the number of times we show it off. Regardless, the joy ffrom either phase is shallow and fades with time as the new becomes the ordinary and we exhaust the number of friends we show off our new status symbols to.  This status-dependent pleasure, must be noted, resonates with our evolutionary instincts to want to have higher status in a group which maximized the chances of survival and mating opportunities. As such, status anxiety has always existed since humans began forming groups and living in communities. But for the first time, the modern human has aligned consumption symbols to form a metric and measure for status.

The Status Anxious Consumer
The progress of capitalism, which necessitates a consumerist ideology, is gradually undermining the very attitude which rendered capitalism possible—today’s capitalism increasingly functions as the “institutionalization of envy. -Salvoj Zizek 
Thanks to the internet and online social networking sites, we all belong to and are connected to so many groups and people and cultural memes; thus, achieving a high status is an infinite struggle because now we compare ourselves to the rest of the world.  Social networking sites like Facebook have done wonders for our society and connecting people to one another but these platforms combined with people's status anxiety and obsession with instant gratification through showing off consumption choices and wanting approval from friends has resulted in our modern day ever connected but lonely society.

Here is the controversial French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, on the connection between status, consumerism and social ties:
Consumer society operates as a kind of social status competition and consumption, rather than production, is at the heart of capitalism...The system destroys direct personal ties an social relations. It then systematically creates simulated relations which can be consumed, instead of those it has destroyed. It also eliminates the singular, radically different content of each person, putting in its place differential signs. And it eliminates real conflict, putting abstract competition in its place...The real social effect of the pursuit of system-promoted goals is an exhausting rat-race. The system of unstable, precarious employment creates generalised insecurity and generalised competition for status. The constant treadmill of work, retraining and status-competition leaves some on the scrapheap and others successful but exhausted. But the ideology of consumption lulls people into believing that they are affluent, fulfilled, happy and liberated.

The Confused Consumer 

Unfortunately this evolution from the collective to the individual and the citizen to the consumer has created an environment where short-term gratification and consumption-based happiness is worshiped and advertised in the expense of meaningful social networks and collective experiences. The modern human then is no longer able to define happiness so he repeats what he sees others on TV, commercials or social media do when they "look" happy so he can also feel happy but since he only knows what consumption-based happiness looks like (stimulation of the real), not feels like, these shallow experiences often leave him feeling empty and unsatisfied.  And to distract from this loss of meaning there are always countless virtual stimuli (twitter, Facebook, Reality Shows, Sports, Entertainment) which themselves are venues for more consumption = happiness advertising and marketing.  Then the modern day human can be generally summarized as: a consumer zombie of sort always distracted by virtual stimuli, advertising and marketing, convincing him or herself that life's purpose is constant happiness through consumption and virtual stimuli.  Boredom is now a very unfortunate circumstance that should be avoided at all cost or the internal introspection and self-awareness departments of the brain might actually wake up and start asking some tough questions that we don't have answers to.

We are now too busy chasing advertised dreams we don't even understand, with a self that we barely know following societal trends we never question to achieve artificial happiness we can't even define measuring life only by the accumulation of status symbols. This is the modern human being, a passive consumer zombie of sort, merely struggling to exist, only floating in a sea of life being pushed around by the latest memes of the consumerist culture and media advertising. To be human today, is to be a consumer, to enjoy consumption as a feeling, as a ritual and a way of life.

The documentary below describes how the culture of consumerism was born and evolved to infiltrate every aspect of the modern American society as a numbing agent of sorts to turn active citizens into passive happiness machines or consumers and create profits for the wealthy few in the expense of debt, financial ruin and mental health problems for the many.

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