Been thinking about this a lot recently and finding it very hard to describe and articulate, but here’s a go:
When it comes to what’s actually important and what makes us happy, do we really know? I’m not entirely sure that we do. I’ve decided this as a result of thinking about shopping and consumerism. It seems to me that integral part of what Western society deems as important is to shop and buy things. Either more things than you’ve currently got or better things that you’ve currently got. And in buying those things you will be happier. Having stuff – more stuff or better stuff – is a way to feel better.
To buy that new shirt to continue to be fashionable and feel good when you’re in the pub, or a magazine to know what’s fashionable or a new phone because it’s better at letting you stay in touch with your friends and feel connected. It’s even called Retail Therapy because therapy is a way (apparently) to feel better about yourself.
So, buying things is correlated to feeling better. I would suggest that we accept, blindly, that having more stuff is the natural thing. It’s not even talked about. It’s an unspoken narrative in our society. It doesn’t need to be said or even discussed because everyone understands it and believes it. Like the sun coming up in the morning.
And to a degree that is, of course, true. Having a new thing can be great. You go to the shop, you get to choose what you want, pay for it, take it home and use it.
But, what happens if you don’t buy anything new? You don’t buy more or better stuff? Typically this means you don’t have the means. So, you’re either poor or unemployed. Both of which are socially undesirable. Or if you have got money and don’t buy more and better stuff then you’re a bit weird for not doing what everyone else does.
So, putting myself in the unemployed and ‘have the money to buy not buying category’, I currently haven’t bought any new clothes (except for some socks) or electronic equipment or just basically ‘stuff’ for about a year. Still buy food, drink, travel and some second hand things, but no ‘more or better’ new stuff.
How does that feel? Well, pretty good. Which isn’t supposed to be the case. Right? If the narrative of shopping is that if I buy more and better stuff then I’ll feel happier, then the converse – not buying any new or better stuff should be that I feel worse. Right? I should, in some way, feel deprived, or left out, or somehow ‘lesser’ shouldn’t I?
So, what do I feel about not buying stuff? Unburdened by the need to. Not having to spend (waste?) time engaging in deciding what to buy and then buying it. Getting to enjoy, use and appreciate the stuff that I have got. Finding interesting ways to use the stuff I have got to do new and different jobs that I might have previously bought something new to do. Glad that I don’t have that occasional moment when I look at something and say ‘why did I buy that?’
But, perhaps the most interesting feeling that’s come up as a result of not buying more stuff is around freedom.
Yes, I’m lucky enough to live in a democracy, get to vote and speak my mind, but when it comes to shopping, am I free? The easy answer to that is ‘of course!’ I can go to any shop that I want and buy whatever I want (as long as I have the money). However, the freedom that I feel is about the choice as to whether I want to shop or not, rather than the freedom to buy what I want when I go shopping.
This is vitally important distinction.
So, there is absolutely freedom around shopping. But the freedom is around which of the many products that are available, is the one that I want? I am free to choose the blue one or the red one. Nike or adidas. Apple or Sony. Toyota or Honda. And it takes a lot of tine energy to decide which is the best one to go for.
Buy to make you happy. I’m free to choose which one I do buy.
However, I’m not free to decide whether or not I want to buy in the first place. Will buying more stuff or better stuff make me happier?
This is not a question that is posed by our society. At all. Consider the evidence. All the advertising and marketing spend, all the packaging, all the window displays. They all are suggesting that we should buy them and in many instances, that what they are offering is in someway superior or different from the other available options. The Ultimate Driving Machine. Washes Whiter. Refreshes the Parts Other Beers can not Reach. They are all pushing the same thing. That buying them is a good thing and will make you happier.
Where is any communication, from anyone, as to whether either buying more or better stuff or not buying more or better stuff is going to make you happier?
I can’t think of any.
So, I’m talking about a different sort of freedom. If we were really free then we would be free to make that decision. Wouldn’t we?
I would contend that because there is no debate on this – one that stimulates a discussion so people can weigh up whether buying more and better stuff or not buying more or better stuff makes them happy – means that we are not free. We don’t have the freedom to choose because we are only ever presented with one option. Buy to make you happy.
I’m not saying that buying nothing makes you happiest. That would be stupid. Maybe a smart phone really does make you happier. But does that sixth pair of jeans? It’s not about absolutes, it’s about having a conversation about the principle and people deciding for themselves.
I think this is really fascinating. We spend so much time shopping, talking about buying more or better stuff and spending money in the process in the belief that it makes us happier and we don’t even discuss whether it actually does.