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Primal downer: consumerism

Our ancestors had to carry everything they possessed – which anthropologists estimate to have weighed no more than 25 pounds!1 (See References below). People who traveled light had a survival advantage. They could move quickly across dangerous open terrain to new camps. Bogged down with non-essential stuff, a nomad’s life was threatened. So the hoarders among them did not live long. Evolution favored people who felt good with minimal stuff. We are a species disposed to material minimalism.

We also evolved with an innate preference for clear open space like the savannah. Recall the evidence that, by nature, most children prefer the views of open grasslands to any other landscape. Researchers have also discovered that we innately like places that let us see anyone who approaches. For example, the most popular seats in restaurants are the ones with their backs to a wall, facing the common area. By nature, we innately feel more secure with an open view of our surroundings. We may not realize why we feel better, but we do. We also have a natural aversion to the sight of litter, items discarded in common areas that create hazards, deface the natural environment, and offend our sense of visual order.

But walking into the average home today, one would never know of our in-born preferences for frugality, conservation, and spatial order. Our abodes are crammed with stuff. The gear we can’t place on shelves, counters, and floors, we pack into closets, basements, garages, or the lockers of the booming self-storage industry.

Yet our genes don’t like acquiring all this stuff. That is borne out by research that shows that lots of possessions do not boost our happiness and probably undermines it. Studies how that the more you adore stuff, the more likely you are to be narcissistic, greedy, envious, anxious, self-critical, and depressed!2 Though we now have substantially larger homes, more cars, more clothes, and more of almost every material thing than any previous generation, we are no happier.3 Dozens of other research papers and several excellent books show that the urge to splurge is a poor happiness investment.4

Obviously not everything you want to possess depletes your happiness. Some goods are essential. Clothes, computers, beds, tables, kitchen appliances, and a long list of other things are necessities of modern life. No one can survive without some stuff and that is as true today as it was when our ancient ancestors lived on the savannah. They too had clothes, jewelry, tools, and water containers. But not much more than that.

You can also acquire fun stuff like snowboards, televisions, boats, and toys. And sensually stimulating stuff, like art, music, or new ideas. Some of your things, like phones and computers, connect you with other people, which is a joy. And your clothing can be a medium for group-identification, for instance, as a goth, aboriginal, gay, or even a Yankee fan. Your possessions can be a source of real satisfaction.

But research suggests that we actually engage very little with most of our possessions. Soon after we acquire the new car, fashion item, or kitchen appliance, its glimmer begins to fade. Even when it is physically present in our life, it recedes to the background of our awareness and gives us only minimally more enjoyment than the old thing it replaced. After the honeymoon, we lose interest.5

But we rarely divorce our stuff. We just warehouse it. We spend more on storage than milk, coffee, or beer. Currently, the storage industry in the U.S. spans the square-foot equivalent of 38,000 football fields!6 The inconvenience side of the ledger intensifies.

But it gets worse. It turns out that we are prone to overestimate the positive side of the ledger. This is because we often acquire things not for reasons of functionality, fun, or self-expression. In fact, most of our purchases are what scientists call ‘bandwagon goods”. We buy homes, fancy cars, or the latest mobile devices more for their status appeal than their usefulness.7

Our nature is to want respect. In the evolutionary environment where survival depended on close bonds with others, people did not live long if they had no respect. Folks who loved getting the respect of their peers replicated their genes. People with no interest in how others felt about them died out. Hence today, most of us are highly concerned about our social position. That primal interest is the basis for much of our consumerism. But there are two problems with the materialist route to respect, and in turn, satisfaction. First, the evidence indicates that consumerism does not in fact produce much respect! While you may think that a big home or expensive car will cause other people to value you more, they are just as likely to be envious and resentful of you. Research shows that people value personal qualities, such as your intelligence, openness, or agreeableness, rather than what you own.8

The second problem is that a product only becomes a status symbol when it is exceptional. The status boost is lost when everyone acquires it. So the acquisitive route to status requires that you buy something newer, bigger, or more expensive than what your neighbors have. But if they follow the same status strategy, they will need to one-up your new purchase. Total consumption balloons, but the status payoff remains the same.9

Whether or not any new possession ultimately produces a happiness debit rather than credit is a question that can only be answered over the long haul of your relationship with it. But if you do the analysis, you might be surprised that the result is negative. Unfortunately, we don’t usually do that audit. At the time of purchase, we see only the immediate joy boost, and often over-estimate it. We don’t factor in the long term costs. So we fancy that buying lots of stuff really does make emotional sense.

The Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, observed this malaise when he left his impoverished country to visit well-off cultures:

"After a few years of asking some very pointed questions in public teachings and private counseling sessions, I began to see that when the pace of external or material progress exceeds the development of inner knowledge, people seemed to suffer deep emotional conflicts without any internal method of dealing with them. An abundance of material items provides such a variety of external distractions that people lose the connection to their inner lives."10

Like any other habit, our spending compulsions can be hard to change. But you will be motivated to do that when you understand that investing in primal experiences is much more emotionally rewarding than spending time acquiring stuff.

I’ve developed a practical plan to start the exit out of consumerism. Find it here.

References: 1 The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society, Richard Lee, 1979, p.438.

2 Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy, James Roberts, 2011, pp.5, 8, 11, 85-86, 146.

3 The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being, Derek Bok, 2011, p.5.

4 For excellent overviews of the research see: Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, Elizabeth Dunn, Michael Norton, 2013; and The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn't, What Shouldn't Make You Happy, but Does, Sonja Lyubomirsky, 2014; and Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy, James Roberts, 2011.

5 Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy, James Roberts, 2011, p.208.

6 What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, Rachel Botsman , Roo Rogers, 2010, p.13.

7 How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, Robert Skidelsky, Edward Skidelsky, 2012, p.38.

8 Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, Geoffrey Miller, 2005, pp.75-76.

9 Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy, James Roberts, 2011, p.97.

10 The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, Eric Swanson, Daniel Goleman, 2008, p.111.


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