Consumerism and human happiness

Many of us are voluntarily handing over our freedom, time and persona every day in the exchange for objects and distractions. Does it have to be this way?

Consumerism and human happiness

Modern consumerism summed up in a single image. The working class in full defensive formation against their fellow man to protect their cheap flat-screen TV from incoming aggressors. The Spartans would be proud. So, why do I lead this article with a chaotic scene from a Black Friday event at an Asda store? Today, I’m going to discuss consumerism and the direct impact it has on our freedom. Grab yourself a coffee, sit back and let’s do this.

Materialismthe excessive desire to acquire and consume material goods. Who cares? Why worry about the purchasing behaviour of others? Why does it actually matter if people spend their hard-earned cash on luxury watches and extravagant kitchen renovations? If it makes them happy… And it is this happiness that I wish to talk about within this article. A subjective happiness that is often at the cost of one’s individual freedom.

“Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for – in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.”

— Ellen Goodman

Happiness through consumerism is undoubtedly influenced by many external factors that do an outstanding job at convincing us all that materialism is the true path to happiness. Think about it, all those brightly illuminated advertising boards continuously telling us how our problems in life can be immediately fixed by luxury purchases. I would implore all of my readers to check out The Century of the Self  A powerful documentary that exposes this very concept via the psychological manipulation techniques that advertisers have successfully used on mass population groups over the years. This documentary explores the numerous cognitive tricks that have been used directly against the human mind to achieve political and commercial aims. Warning: makes for intense viewing.

“Too often, psychology over-individualises social problems. In so doing, we end up blaming the victim, in this instance by locating materialism primarily in the person while ignoring the huge corporate culture that’s invading so much of our lives.”

— Dr. Aallen Kanner, PHD.

Many studies and statistics back up the simple fact that income growth has very little impact on happiness. The chart to follow this paragraph will show you a survey conducted within the United States from 1972 to 2008. Real income per capita almost doubled over the period, while average happiness—as reported by respondents to the General Social Survey, changed very little.

Consumerism and human happiness chart graph
Mean happiness (left scale) is the average reply from respondents to the U.S. General Social Survey. The survey question asks: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days? Would you say that you are not too happy, pretty happy or very happy?” These values were coded as 1, 2 and 3, respectively. Source: General Social Survey data – Real income per capita based on authors’ calculation using data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Census Bureau.





Thankfully not all men are absorbed by material quests and constant lust of luxuries. But as social creatures, many of us will build a portion of our sense of self-worth and happiness on a real-time material comparison with others. How easy it is to see how this mindset can lead to utter dissatisfaction when your priorities are firmly focused on superficial shiny things, while you continuously compare your day-to-day behind the scenes to everybody’s highlight reels.

This type of self-worth commonly leads many into the most stressful segments of the rat-race. How many of those purchases made over the previous 5 years brought you sustained happiness? Was that fancy wine bottle holder from Ikea that cost you 6 hours of your working time truly worth it? Our lives are finite and we often give much of it away without little thought in our endless pursuit of the idealistic inventory. We have one shot at this life, and what a shame it would be to spend most of it unhappy as we slave away in jobs we don’t enjoy, so our t-shirts can have little men playing polo on them.

The aforementioned paragraph is not a decree for living out the remainder of your days in the wild. But a switch in focus from materialistic goals to a pursuit of financial independence will be an excellent start for many. Instead of dropping an extra £8,000 on a new car, perhaps focus your outgoings towards intelligent investments or a financial endeavour which aims to make your money work for you in the long term, enabling you to find more time to travel the world and hanging with your friends & family. Money doesn’t have to be such a controlling influence in your life and a switch in focus might be all that is needed.

Many of us are voluntarily handing over our freedom, time and happiness every day in the exchange of objects and distractions that paralyse our very ability to grow and live our lives how we truly would like to if we only had the chance. This subject is undoubtedly unique for each and every person based on their own mindset and individual circumstances. Thus, the solution will often come down to personal reflection and examination.

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