Words by John Kite
When was the last time you bought something you didn’t need? This month? This week? This morning? We’re all trapped in the addictive cycle of buying, anticipating, unwrapping, and buying again, but like the realisation that you’ve been endlessly scrolling social media, once we see ‘through the looking glass’, we cringe at our addiction to instant gratification and dopamine. We know that we’re hooked, that we spend too much money, that we’re killing the planet with our infinite wants and endless consumption and yet nothing changes. We’re too selfish. But what if our boredom induced buying and casual consumption is bad for us, too? Our obsession leaves us an unhappy, unfulfilled cog in the consumerist machine; are you listening now?
Consumption is a wholly inadequate, temporary fix for negative emotions and boredom that stops us finding long-term, meaningful solutions to feeling bad. The well-known ‘Marshmallow Test’, a Stanford research method, gives children two options: eat a sweet now or wait fifteen minutes and get two. The study showed that children who waited went on to do better in school, have higher self-esteem, and better life outcomes. The impatience and impulse which characterises consumption prioritises instant gratification at the expense of learning how to be truly, meaningfully happy.
The irony of consumption is our associated emptiness; we experience post-purchase emptiness and, in a catch-22, there are diminishing marginal returns whereby each item purchased means less as we acquire more. We think we’re happy but are merely distracted from our problems. Worse, we are distracted from the search for meaning; meaning cannot be bought or received, only experienced or given, and is imperative for the times when happiness, an emotion reliant on factors outside of our control, is impossible to obtain. When our lives revolve around ‘things’, our sense of self becomes externally focused, and we struggle to find happiness within.
Why do we keep buying? It’s not stupidity or narrowmindedness but the social media money machine; Facebook wants to keep eyes glued to screens for as long as possible, to pitch products over and over regardless of user wellbeing. At the very moment you promise not to spend, that you’ve got everything you need, the perfect bargain flashes across your screen. Amazon’s buy-now-button and record delivery times create the illusion of power and autonomy whilst exploiting our addictive tendencies.
We must also hold ourselves accountable; we perpetuate materialism through social media, posting hauls and designer clothes and liking flashy pictures, all contributing to a tragically widespread misconception of happiness as material wealth. In actuality, research proves a point of income satiation after which financial gains are no longer correlated with happiness ($60,000 to $75,000 for emotional wellbeing: gross materialism is not making you or anyone else happier). Emotions have ceilings; being one hundred or one thousand times richer doesn’t change this and control over our emotions, rather than impulsive grabs for external stimuli, is key.
What’s the solution? Like any addiction, change is not instantaneous nor easy. It requires an intentional shift from finding happiness in consumption to finding it within and living meaningfully. You might buy because you are bored. My advice is to get off social media, don’t follow or like brands or products, and unsubscribe from marketing mailing lists. If you need to fill a digital void, rate films, books or music, call a family member or a friend. If you need to buy something, buy sustainably and high quality – Depop is great, and charity shops too.
But before each purchase ask yourself: does this item contribute to my long-term emotional wellbeing and how have I gone without it before? Netflix’s documentary on minimalism shows how ordinary people can detach happiness from materialism; regardless of how much you choose to reduce consumption, the call to ‘love people and use things, because the opposite never works’ is more important than ever. By consuming less, we can save money, the environment, and ourselves; what’s not to like? I urge you to try.