Buying Happiness in a Consumption Economy

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Capitalism and its relationship to the definition of happiness in modern society. Last night I watched this video…

… which describes why our materials economy is not sustainable and how it is awful for everyone involved (except the big corporations making lots of money.) Nothing really shocking in the video if you know how the consumption economy works, but it’s just sad how capitalism is pretty much based upon making you feel like shit so you have to buy stuff you don’t need and then making the stuff you don’t need seem like shit compared to the latest cool thing so you want to buy that and so on, with all your once cool stuff becoming waste polluting the planet (not to mention the whole awful part about cheap labor and destroying third world countries.) That leads me to wonder, if stuff is ruining the planet, and likely our ability to be happy, then is it possible to be happy with money in our lives?

I jokingly asked my boyfriend today if he thinks I’d be happy if I just gave away all my money. That’s a stupid idea, as I’d eventually starve and wouldn’t have a place to live. I don’t actually give any money to charity yet and I’m not sure at what point I’ll feel comfortable doing so. If I save $20k next year, I should be able to afford to donate some funds to charity. But I just feel like all that money should be put in my grad school account, or in my making babies in vitro account, or in my house down payment fund, or car replacement fund. Having money is a necessity, unless you’re that blogger who lives in canyon and eats out of trash cans and seems to be thrilled with his life, and I’m not sure how to let go of any of it.

Still, I don’t see myself ever being happy in a stuff economy. I don’t always buy the newest and most expensive gadgets and clothes, but I tend to shop for trends when the prices come down a bit, and I’ll snap up the hottest gadget when I feel the cost is what it’s worth (ie, my recent iPhone purchase), but I just don’t know when I’ll feel like I make enough to have enough to feel “good” in this society.

When I went to undergrad, I was so idealistic. I wanted to learn everything. I wasn’t the best at learning because I couldn’t decide what to learn and could never focus on one thing. When I figured out I need to find something to do to make money I became depressed. Now that I’m looking towards grad school, I have to find something that can sustain me for the rest of my life and also take in a decent income. I constantly think about having to support a family one day, knowing I could do it on a small income, but dreaming of a “large” six-figure income to support my mildly frugal stuff-based lifestyle.

The problem is, capitalism is inherently teaching us that our happiness should come from having more than the next person. Whether that’s having a shiny new car, a cool pair of Ugg boots, or even just the ability to go out to dinner once a week when they can’t (even if we’re going into debt because of it) that is how we value ourselves in our society. Yet does it really make us happy? If there were some utopian society where everyone was equal, would we be able to obtain happiness without comparing ourselves to others from a financial standpoint? Or is that impossible… after all, we are genetically designed to compete so our offspring obtain the best life. Is that what our happiness is about?

My boyfriend is a simple guy. He’s be happy living in a small hut with some good books and nothing but forest around him, and a visitor maybe once or twice a month. Me… I’m a different animal. I almost feel like I need stuff. I need the rush of shopping, it makes me feel safe. Without god in my life there’s only shopping to fill that void. I don’t go to temple or church, I go to the mall. I say thanks by purchasing the best fitting outfits I try on. I fill my religious void with lots of stuff. And then I fill my room with it and my clutter makes me miserable. It’s a vicious cycle. And it has to end now.

Still, what replaces my stuff religion when it’s gone? The only replacement are experiences… and those can be free or expensive and worth the same. It is our experiences that we remember, not our material goods. Even then, though, experiences can be pricey (they don’t have to be) and do they even really make us happy? A blog I was reading the other day discussed how travel is a waste of money and that experiences are pretty much just as invaluable as stuff and they come and go. But if nothing has value (other than maybe our love ones, who we have no control over in terms of life or death as accidents happen) it becomes almost necessary for us to have stuff in our lives. Stuff keeps us sane. It puts meaning on something that really isn’t worth anything, even if it cost a lot. Take away stuff and what do our lives mean?

I wish I could spend my life studying how the relationship of a people with material goods and experiences effect the happiness of a society and culture. Is American culture just so awful and warped that it’s hard to see past life’s true value and how to obtain happiness, or is this a worldwide epidemic? A human epidemic?

Plenty more thoughts on this topic to come… feel free to post a comment answering some or all of my questions… I’m curious what you all think…

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4 thoughts on “Buying Happiness in a Consumption Economy”

  1. You probably could study this for the rest of your life as a sociologist or anthropologist. It might not make you enough money to buy you much "stuff," but I think that has an interesting symmetry to it. Great post.

  2. I think it's a delicate line to tread. I've definitely become more materialistic with Tim than I was in the past. Then again, I was always a little more interested in material goods than my mom. I think it comes down to balance. I would like to have more money to spend on clothes. A pretty LCD TV would be a nice investment, since we watch so much of the boob tube and DVDs. Tim wants a nice car one day. (I'm happy with a car that runs steadily.)Otherwise, we don't need a lot in our lives. Tim will always want a new game or some more Magic cards. But limits can be set to make that feasible. I don't think I would want to go too far away from materialism. That is, I hate how much needless consumption goes on in this economy. (Or perhaps I just hate how little thought goes into the vast majority of purchases.) But I like having pretty things, so I am somewhat guilty of materialism myself. I see that you have "Adult ADD and Money" on your PF blogs (one I recently started reading to learn more about how to help Tim deal with finances). If you have ADD, it's pretty much natural for you to like shopping. Like you said, it's a rush. And people with ADD are often seeking a rush — from caffeine or shopping or risk-taking or whatever. It's the same reason adderall helps. The rush of adrenaline (or, in adderall's case, amphetamines) helps ADDers narrow their focus. It's essentially a recreation of fight or flight. They can concentrate on just the one thing, blocking others out. Which must be a huge relief to anyone experiencing what Tim has described to me. So you add all that to the general happiness that occurs when you buy something you like and get to take home with you… Few of us would stand a chance.

  3. Girl, you decide what's important to you, not the economy around you. Having money doesn't make you have to spend it on stuff.Whatever happened to personal growth? Love? Volounteering? Sharing? All the good old christian values? Just because the economy doesn't seem to value them, doesn't mean you can't live by them. And about the money, just keep it, a good use will always appear – no worries here.

  4. Keep in mind that even a video that appears'caring and concerned' can have a definite agenda. One might even say propaganda….Keep your BS detector up when viewing politicalmessages just as much as when a commercial comeson. I don't mean that one shouldn't be concernedabout the environment, or the poor, or where'stuff' goes when we throw it away. Just askyourself what viewpoint this video wants toleave you with. You don't have to be a rightwing extremist or fat cat capitalist to seebig holes in this message, LoL…

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