What Are We Being Sold

by Natasha Parker

Since Veblen’s1 observations in the 1890’s that the leisure classes consumed conspicuously to impress their peers, consumption has become a culturally dominant means of seeking happiness, success, and the good life. But amid the current backdrop of the climate and ecological crisis, reducing individual consumption is going to be a critical factor in maintaining a livable planet. Globally, we consume 70% more resources than the earth can replenish each year2, and it is the wealthiest countries over-consuming at the highest rates. If every person on earth consumed as much as the average American, we’d need 5 planets3.
To create a livable world, consumption will need to be distributed more fairly both within and between countries. Many need to consume more to avoid falling through the social floor, but as wealth is the best predictor of our ecological footprint, it is the wealthiest who will need to make the largest reductions to their consumption to keep us all within the ecological ceiling4. Yet today, we receive more cultural messages than ever telling us that the good life can be achieved through consuming more. But could we lead better lives with less?

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For the poorest in society, happiness can indeed be sought through consuming more. Wellbeing increases dramatically when individuals are lifted out of poverty and basic needs for nutrition, housing, healthcare, and safety are comfortably fulfilled5. But beyond this, having more doesn’t make much difference to our happiness. This is also true at a societal level. The Easterlin paradox6 demonstrates that increases in a country’s wealth are accompanied by a sharp rise in wellbeing, but once the basic needs of a population are largely met, additional rises in GDP have diminishing wellbeing returns. Wealthier nations are happier than poor nations, but subjective wellbeing has increased very little over the last few decades in richer nations like the US and UK despite substantial economic growth7.
Continuing to seek happiness through consumption once basic needs are met has been found to be harmful to wellbeing in a myriad of different ways8. Hundreds of studies now show that more materialistic individuals experience fewer positive emotions, have lower self-esteem, engage in more risky health behaviors such as using drugs and alcohol, and are more likely to have a diagnosable mental disorder such as anxiety or depression. This research has prompted the question of why people who prioritize materialistic values and goals have lower wellbeing? One theory is that perhaps people feel worse when they are unable to attain their materialistic aspirations so perhaps if they attained the bigger house, the higher salary, and the flash car they would feel better? But studies have found this not to be true9, and individuals who achieve these types of goals still feel worse than people who don’t prioritize them.
Psychologists explain this through several psychological processes. One is the concept of “hedonic adaptation”10. Humans get used to new things quickly. Things that were once new and exciting quickly become dull and old. This psychological process is great for sales, we’re offered a cornucopia of goods and services that stir up new wants and desires that can never be truly met by the goods on offer. All Apple needs to do to make us feel dissatisfied with the i-phone 13 is show us the i-phone 14, which will quickly feel tired once the i-phone 15 is released. And so the treadmill continues.
Another explanation is linked to our desire for status in society.11 We all want other people to view us positively and to feel a sense of self-worth because we’re doing “ok.” We constantly compare ourselves to others, but when our lot improves and we move to the bigger house in the better neighborhood, our social comparators change.
These explanations demonstrate that materialistic goals are not very good at making us feel satisfied and fulfilled, but evidence shows that materialistic aspirations are also harmful because they distract us from spending our time and energy on aspirations that would genuinely make us feel fulfilled12. Psychologists suggest that in addition to our basic physiological needs for water, nutrition, shelter etc., humans also have core psychological needs that need to be met in order us to thrive13. These psychological needs are for 1) a sense of autonomy: to be in control of our own decisions and the ways that we live our lives. 2) feeling competent: when we get better at things and feel a sense of mastery; and 3) feeling connected to others: having warm, trusting social relationships that give us a sense of belonging. These needs are much better met by what psychologists call “intrinsic” goals: personal growth, strong social connections, and making a meaningful contributing to society14.
As materialism has been found to be on the rise in the USA,15 a pertinent question is how materialism can be reduced? Two key strategies have been recommended by psychologists.16 1) reduce exposure to messages espousing money, status, and possessions as valuable goals to pursue. Materialism has been found to increase when more time is spent exposed to advertising.17 Currently, exposure to advertising shows no signs of slowing down as top creative talent devise ever more persuasive cultural messages to convince us to continually consume, and online advertising targets us in increasingly invasive and manipulative ways.18 Great for business, not so great for our wellbeing, or for the planet. A recent report19 in the UK demonstrated that advertising is responsible for 32% of the carbon footprint of every single person in the UK, due to the additional products they are persuaded to buy.
While advertising exposure continues to rise, there is another strategy shown to reduce materialism20 that may well be easier to implement and has the co-benefits of increasing wellbeing and reducing ecological footprints. This strategy is to promote “intrinsic” goals for personal growth, strong relationships, and contribution to society. These types of goals have a lasting impact on our wellbeing because they meet our psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. A helpful summary of intrinsic goals is the “5 ways to wellbeing” model21. The 5 ways are: 1) Connect – good quality relationships and frequent social interaction is essential for psychological health. 2) Take notice – paying attention to what is really important to us (mindfulness) and taking notice of what we have (gratitude). Both mindfulness22 and gratitude23 have been found to be effective strategies to reduce materialism, as these skills involve appreciating the value of what one already has instead of striving for more. 3) Keep learning - Continued learning through life enhances our self-esteem and encourages us to meet new people. 4) Be active – exercise is great for our physical and mental health. Swapping car journeys to walk, run or cycle can be a great way to fit exercise into busy lives, while also reducing our emissions. 5) Give - Giving to something beyond ourselves helps give us a sense of meaning and fulfillment in our lives as well as boosting happiness.
There is an urgent ecological imperative for the wealthiest in society to consume less. The good news is that the psychological research is clear; shifting our focus away from accumulating more money and possessions, and instead spending our time and attention on activities like the 5 ways to wellbeing can help us live happier, more fulfilling lives, while having a lighter impact on the planet.

Natasha Parker is Head of Post Consumerism at environmental charity Global Action Plan. She is currently working towards her PhD in environmental Psychology at the University of Surrey, and has published 3 peer reviewed journal articles on the relationship between materialism, wellbeing, and sustainable behaviors.


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2) Global Footprint Network (2022) Earth Overshoot Day https://www.overshootday.org/
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