The Happy Consumer

My first concert was a homecoming celebration just on the other side of the river from my hometown, in Parkersburg, West Virginia. There were games and spectacles of the sort you'd expect at such a festival. And because I was nine at the time, those things held my fascination to no end.

What I remember most vividly, though, is the concert. The Guess Who (whose band name I later had so much fun relaying to others) had come to town to play their 60s hits- most notably, American Woman. I was enthralled at my first taste of live music. Not only had I never experienced the rawness of music distilled to its purest form, but I felt a connection with the musicians onstage that remains all these years later. Anyone who's witnessed live music can attest to the same: we feel a strong connection to those artists we've witnessed performing their craft. That concert was my first transformative experience.

Let's try a simple experiment. Close your eyes for ten seconds, and you think back on your favorite things. What comes to mind?

I’ll wait.

...

Most likely, what comes to mind (despite my use of the word "things") are not things at all, but experiences. You may also recall the people tied to those experiences. Few of us, though, will recall a handbag, or a car, or a phone.

If we were building a society from scratch, then, wouldn't we start with the things we hold most precious? And if those things can't be held or touched, how would we feel about a society that revolves around things that can be held and touched?

I'm sure you see where I'm going with this- we don't have to imagine such a society, because we're living in it. We've inverted our own value system by building a world which rests atop a foundation of those things which we value the least. That, surely, is a problem.

Some will say that things, in and of themselves, are not the problem- and they would be right. Material possessions can possess meaning. But, things are not inherently meaningful. We endow them with meaning, which is why we have such a hard time throwing out things with sentimental value.

Conversely, we have a very easy time throwing out things to which we have no emotional attachment, and that is the foundation of modern society. We're built for convenience: paper plates, trade-in values for vehicle upgrades, gas stations and convenience stores. The most obvious example is electronics: your phone has a glued-on screen so that, if it breaks, you'll have to replace the whole thing instead of buying a new screen. Apple computers are coming under increasing fire for their non-upgradeable parts, and others are beginning to follow suit once they see the profit margins.

The problem isn't that we live in a materialistic world, but that we live in a disposable world. Thankfully, we're starting to see this trend reversed. Disposable is becoming a dirty word as we march toward a more sustainable future. That means electric cars, reusable goods, the rise of Etsy, and the proliferation of the sharing economy.

That's a wonderful thing for the world in terms of the ecosystem and for the sustainability of the human race- but what about us? We're making progress on a global scale, but what about you and me? Progress for all of us means nothing without progress for each of us. The world that we're building from the ashes of hyper-materialism and hyper-consumerism must be one that nourishes the soul as effectively as it nourishes the planet.

To see this nourishment in action, look at the minimalist movement that sprang up on the web around 2007. The idea, at first, was noble and well-intentioned: to eliminate unnecessary possessions and allow more space for the things that mattered (the movement soon took a more malicious form, but that's another conversation). Minimalism, at least in that form, went too far in assuming that all material possessions are bad. There's no denying, though, that we love stuff. Nick Thorpe explains it well:

And yet when applied to my whole life, such a hair-shirted response is ultimately as unsustainable as the position it challenges. I inhabit a material body in a material world, and have only to look around me to see the material things that nourish me: the delicious falafel wrap on my plate, the art that brightens the café wall, or even my tablet screen that responds so elegantly to the stroke of my finger.

If Western consumer culture sometimes resembles a bulimic binge in which we taste and then spew back things that never quite nourish us, the ascetic, anorexic alternative of rejecting materialism altogether will leave us equally starved. Who, then, can teach me how to celebrate my possessions with the mindful, celebratory spirit of a gourmet?

Minimalism is an extreme reaction to consumerism, and extreme reactions are rarely sustainable. What Thorpe proposes, then, is a balance:

The Chilean poet-politician Pablo Neruda was a self-described ‘thing-ist’, who has inspired me ever since I wandered through the eccentric treasure-trove of his home in Santiago. Neruda was a passionate socialist and an erudite collector of curious objects – carved pipes, grotesque African masks, ships in bottles, whales’ teeth. ‘In my house I have put together a collection of small and large toys I can’t live without,’ he wrote in Memoirs (1974). He wisely understood that ‘the man who doesn’t play has lost forever the child who lived in him and he will certainly miss him’. For Neruda, children figured as materialistic in the purest and most playful sense, delighting in textures, noises, colours, the taste of a rattle, the subversive shock of a magic trick.

The answer to consumerism is not to love things less, but to love them more, to care enough about a possession to care about its story, about where it comes from, and about its place in our lives. Consumerism isn't about caring too much about things; it's about caring too little. If we care more — if we pay more attention — we'll buy less, but we'll buy better.

That presents a problem, however. If we buy less, how will the economy survive? Everything around us is built to condition us to buy more. When the economy collapsed in 2007, we were told, in no uncertain terms, the answer: go out and buy stuff. If we put more money into circulation, we put more money into the hands of publicly-traded corporations. If we put more money into the hands of those corporations, we put more money into the hands of its investors, who will put it back into circulation, and so on. The mark of a good economy is the rate at which money flows freely from one hand to another.

The prevailing assumption is that our goods-based economy is the only viable alternative to keeping the money flowing. The argument against capitalism's opponents have one major and valid point on their side: what's the alternative? Making and selling goods is the only way to keep money flowing.

Except that it's not. The sharing economy is gaining momentum, but it can't completely replace a goods-based economy. Experience, though, can. Thorpe explains:

The New Economics Foundation predicts that the new materialism will lead to more emphasis in spending on ‘experiences rather than disposable goods’, which means less shopping and more music, film, live performance, sport and socialising: more lasting satisfaction and less of the transitory hit of ownership. This in turn might lead to a proliferation of festivals, sporting competitions and cultural events celebrating the talents we share and occluding the endless proliferation of retail stuff.

Imagine, if you will, that world. Imagine that you buy far less stuff, leaving the majority of your income for experiences like concerts, movies, theme parks, vacations. Imagine entirely new ventures springing up to provide new experiences.

Now think about the current state of things. Think, specifically, about a Capital One commercial that currently airs, in which a man in a hardware store goes through said store grabbing everything he can in an effort to rack up as many "points" as he can while sound effects and visual cues make it look as if the man is playing a video game. The entire point of this commercial is to make the process of spending obscene amounts of money seem fun. It doesn't even pretend to value the things he's buying- they're irrelevant. What's important is that he spends as much money as possible to rack up credit card points. In the final shot, the man has reached his destination: the cash register. He's conquered the game, and he's had fun doing so, as you can tell by the enormous smile on his face- nevermind how quickly it will disappear when he sees his enormous credit card bill later.

And consumerism isn't just bad for our wallets- it's bad for us. Take it from the Association for Psychological Science:

Money doesn’t buy happiness. Neither does materialism: Research shows that people who place a high value on wealth, status, and stuff are more depressed and anxious and less sociable than those who do not. Now new research shows that materialism is not just a personal problem. It’s also environmental. “We found that irrespective of personality, in situations that activate a consumer mindset, people show the same sorts of problematic patterns in wellbeing, including negative affect and social disengagement,” says Northwestern University psychologist Galen V. Bodenhausen.

That credit card commercial isn't just actively promoting reckless spending, it's actively damaging our ability to be happy.

An economy based on sharing and experience is starting to look pretty good, isn't it?

We're not there, yet, of course, and our goods-based economy isn't going away anytime soon. The march towards more experience and less stuff will be steady, but slow. In the meantime, we can accelerate that march and make ourselves happier in the process by simply being aware. Be aware of your things, and of your attachment to them. Be aware of where your money goes, and spend more of it on experience, and less on stuff. When you do buy stuff, spend a little extra to buy quality. Know where your stuff is made, and by whom, and whether their interests are aligned with yours.

Money can't buy happiness, but it can give us the tools to create the memories that do.