We’re obsessed with happiness. It’s the topic of endless discussions, economic studies, psychology experiments and philosophical treatises. Amazon returns 104,645 results for books on “happiness”. The failure of consumerism, a.k.a. “retail therapy”, to scratch that itch is also a hot topic. We know – almost instinctively – that buying stuff might give us a short term bump, but it’s not the path to happiness, satisfaction or joy.
Consumerism has also spawned an ugly child, fast fashion, which is partly responsible for the current growth in the world’s slave labor force while simultaneously hastening the destruction of our planet – but more on that in my next post. This post deals with the misguided pursuit of happiness which we have somehow translated into consumerism. Ruth Whippman says, “The systematic packaging and selling of happiness is an industry estimated to be worth more than $10 billion, about the same size as Hollywood”.
Brain imaging reveal that buying things – or even just looking at new products (window shopping) – stimulates the brain in ways similar to receiving positive social feedback. In other words, we buy stuff to show we’re cool. We share something in common with other people who buy cool stuff and the coolness rubs off on us – at least in our brains. People bond over these shared preferences, but they are illusory so the effect doesn’t last. And that’s the best case scenario.
Recent advances in positive psychology have found that the keys to happiness lie outside of the acquisition of material things. Instead of bringing joy, studies have found that continually seeking to acquire more things actually makes us depressed and anxious. Of the “25 habits that psychologists have linked with happiness”, only 1 of them requires spending money. And that one thing involves spending money on someone else… not yourself.
Being with friends and family, walking in nature, meditating, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable (which fosters intimacy in relationships), loving and serving others, being thankful, and understanding our individual identity (apart from what we own) are some of the things that can make us truly happy.
We will always be consumers because we have daily physical needs like food, clothing and shelter, but we live far more fulfilled lives when we keep our thoughts on things that matter instead of on the things that we own. Being and ethical consumer lifts up workers and preserves our environment. That’s what I look for in the products I buy and the companies I support, and that’s what I want my company to exemplify.