Happiness isn’t buried under a mountain of “stuff.” That’s why one of the first steps toward personal fulfillment—and social progress—is to break free from the buy-more, want-more cycle. That’s not as easy as it sounds, but I promise the withdrawals will be worth it in the end.
Sure, trading in last year’s iPhone for the latest model brings you some amount of joy, and sending that first text message probably feels pretty darned awesome. But is that fleeting rush worth the consequences of your seemingly innocuous purchase? You may think so because Apple’s advertising campaign is damn convincing, plus you’re basking in the jealousy of your drooling friends. But reality is a bit different here on planet Earth than in the vividly hued dream world, complete with dancing appliances, that the manufacturer has so carefully crafted in its TV commercials.
Those commercial, and others like it, work by convincing us that our lives will be more complete with with the featured product as it fills a need that we didn’t yet know existed. Dazzled by the promise of life enrichment, we open our wallets. But life is still not perfect after our iPhone purchase, and soon after connecting the device to the nearest wi-fi signal we link to Amazon or ebay or Zappos and browse for the next thing to buy. And considering the average New Yorker is exposed to up to 5,000 ads a day, there are plenty of ideas for new toys milling in our heads.
This consumer culture inevitably leads to an identity crisis, according to an article published in the Journal of Public Mental Health in 2007, because instead of aspiring toward an “inner sense of authenticity” we seek material goods suggested to us by others. And because we all see the same commercials, the pressure often comes from peers who judge us by our possessions just as we judge ourselves. In turn, we become even more vulnerable to marketing campaigns that (falsely) promise to help us find our missing fulfillment. Zappos uses the tagline “delivering happiness.” McDonald’s, a legendary player in the overconsumption game, instructs us to “put a smile on” by eating their pseudo-food. (Well, you’ll certainly put something on after eating at McDonald’s, and it’ll take a whole lot of cardio to get rid of it.)
So how to escape the Cult of More? I have my good days and my bad, but find it helps to laugh at commercials, flip past magazine ads and choose companions who don’t care what brands I wear. But all it really takes is a second thought before you buy. It’s easy to talk yourself out of spending more money, and even waiting 15 minutes before whipping out your wallet helps you see how little you actually need that thing. And it feels really, really good to say no—even better than that first text message.