July 8th, 2020
The phrase “Work Buy Consume Die” precisely reflects the quintessence of capitalist economies. Since Capitalism emerged in the 17th century, it has become the most common economic system in the world. However, capitalist economies, which rely on purchasing “excessive things to ramp up demands in order to meet the high production of goods”, often flourish at the expense of the “fundamental human quest” for a meaningful life and wellbeing, according to Clark University professors Halina Brown and Philip Vergragt (Brown & Vergragt). By advocating that buying freely is a way of treating oneself with what one deserves, the government has pumped citizens’ desire for material products. This extreme ideology of consumerism of associating “quality of life” with “owning and accumulating more things” is especially prevalent in countries that embrace “American corporate capitalism” (Power), which, according to psychologist Shalom Schwartz, “encourages materialism more than other forms of capitalism” (Azar). It may seem counterintuitive that the higher income for some and access to leisure fail to improve individual subjective well-being, which comprises two factors: life-satisfaction and happiness. However, the verity is that consumerism fosters the addiction to economic growth and material gain, which undermines individual subjective well-being as it exacerbates social alienation and disparity.
It has long been established that social ties play crucial roles in humans’ lives and contribute to wellbeing. Nevertheless, this critical component has been gradually ousted by individualism associated with an imaginary identity that bases on the consumption of goods. In corporate capitalism, “an active and self-directed way of life is expected from the individual”, which “accelerates individualism” and “causes the undermining of traditional institutions” (Sointu). Today, mounting individualistic values are driving people to lose their community ties, which in turn bereave our source of happiness from real social interactions. As Yuval Noah Harari, a historian and philosopher who obtained his Ph.D. from Oxford University, reasons in his bestselling book Sapiens: A brief history of Humankind, the true happiness created by intrinsic relationships with other human beings are replaced by imaginary identity fostered by consumeristic standards (363). He explains this idea with a fathomable example: Madonna fans that purchase Madonna-related products constitute a consumer tribe, in which they identify themselves by shopping (Harari, 363). This identity is uncertain and imaginary since it only exists in humans’ collective imagination, just as a currency that will become useless when people do not associate it with monetary values. People that live in such imaginative communities no longer pursue actual relationships and social interactions with others; instead, they are preoccupied with the unsustainable pursuit of materials. The happiness they experience when getting the CD recently came out or obtaining the concert tickets of the front roll is limited and brief, because it depends on “external stimuli”, as the 14th Dalai Lama suggests (Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho). Thus, in order to maintain and enhance this fleeting joy, people consume endlessly to occupy their vacuous and insatiable desire that was once filled with “love, compassion, and generosity” toward the surrounding community (Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho). This omnipresent phenomenon of establishing identity based on consumption habits and interest inevitably leads to many social issues, including social alienation, which causes a lower level of subjective wellbeing.
America, as the leading corporate capitalist country and the nation with the highest nominal GDP, is experiencing “Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty” as a result of social alienation (DeANGELIS). Today, people are living “around extrinsic goals” which are identified as “focusing on possessions, image, status and receiving rewards and raise” (DeANGELIS). This has been reported being associated with “greater unhappiness in relationships, poorer moods and more psychological problems” (DeANGELIS). This conclusion is also cooperated by a 2002 paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research, which found that people with strong materialistic goal orientations are less happy than those “low in materialism and high in prosocial values” (DeANGELIS). Knowing that “Social connections (including marriage and friendship) have been robustly linked with both happiness and good health” (Subramanian), the severity of consumerism undermining individual objective well-being is easily reasoned. In a series of studies conducted by psychologist Katherine Vohs, Ph.D., students who were “primed to think about neutral concepts or insufficient funds” are more helpful at “picking up spilled pencils”, more “generous” than those who were primed with wealth on their minds. On the other hand, those who were more materialistic are more “insular”; they preferred to “sit farther away from a colleague or work independently rather than in a team” (Azar). The sharp contrast of social behaviors of groups with different materialistic values illustrates the social-alienating effect of consumerism. To achieve the broader source of individual subjective wellbeing than just pleasure or the avoidance of pain means being “able to flourish, find meaning, and fulfill our potential”, which is “deeply affected by collective and social relationships” according to John Wiseman, a British author and Kathleen Brusher, a researcher for the WHO Global Age-friendly Cities Guide, (Wiseman & Brasher). Such correlation is also being acknowledged by researchers Julia Rohrer and her colleagues who found that people who wrote about adopting a social strategy for becoming happier spent more time with people, which resulted in increasing happiness than those who did not. This demonstrates the crucial connection between better subjective wellbeing and more social interactions. Thus, Consumerism, which alienates people from their close societies, is blocking consumers’ path toward better subjective wellbeing.
Corporate capitalist economic systems also exacerbate social inequality, which creates lower self-satisfaction and less happiness. This low self-esteem has been shown to stimulate more materialistic values of people, especially adultescents. Thus, a vicious cycle of consumerism is created between generations. Driven by mounting pressure to outperform their peers, people develop more dissatisfaction and become more pessimistic as Kate Harveston, a freelance journalist, reasons (Harveston). According to Wilkinson and Pickett, “US [has] both the highest score for social problems and the highest income inequality” (Brown & Vergragt). In America, about 20 percent of all children growing up in families below the poverty line, which provides them with unequal opportunities to develop their talents compared to their wealthier counterparts (Wright). Based on this statistic and his own knowledge, Eric Olin Wright, who was the 2012 President of the ASA and was educated in Harvard, Oxford, and Berkeley, fathoms that the issue lies in the “unequal access to the conditions to live a flourishing life” as a result of “insufficient income to live a culturally defined dignified level” (Wright). The pressures to consume, thus, result in a “damaged self-concept among low-income adolescents who cannot keep up with the latest trends”; consequently, they are less happy and satisfied (Sweeting). The cultural standard of social status based on the financial capability to consume makes the lower-income families more susceptible to the detrimental effect on subjective wellbeing.
The sheer magnitude of social disparity caused by corporate capitalistic economy evokes more intensive desire for economic growth and material gain that is devastating to future generations’ subjective wellbeing. In American studies, “more consumer-oriented 18-year-old people were found to have grown up in less advantageous socio-economic circumstances, 9-14-year-old with the highest levels of consumerism tended to be drawn from families with lower incomes” (Sweeting). Children with stronger desire for material products at such young ages, especially those from lower-income families, have shown to have low levels of future subjective wellbeing. Psychologists Carol Nickerson, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Norbert Schwarz, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan, Diene, and Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., of Princeton University conducted a study 19 years apart. This longitudinal study found that people who had “stronger financial aspirations” reported to be less satisfied with their lives than those who”[expressed] lower monetary desires” two decades later (DeANGELIS). Additional studies have also shown that consumerism has a positive association with “psychosomatic symptoms, depression, anxiety, and lower self-esteem” of children from 9-13 years old (Sweeting). Consumerism that rises in capitalist countries, thus, has both direct (psychologically and emotionally) and indirect (futuristic) damages on individuals that result in less happy and satisfying lives.
Although many sociologists, economists, and psychologists have realized corporate capitalism causes lower subjective wellbeing for decades, their efforts of moving towards more cooperative economies had limited effects due to the relentless evolution of social practices toward “more complexity, more functionality, and more seemingly necessary uses” through “technological innovations[,] aggressive marketing and manipulative of desires” (Brown & Vergragt). Therefore, even when people are conscious of their abnormal addiction to consumption, their perceptions hardly translate into virtual actions. Capitalism has ingrained the image of consumerism as “normal, basic, and necessary” in people’s minds, forming a common culture that relies on the accumulation of possessions to fulfill spiritual vacancy (Brown & Vergragt).
A solution proposed by Sylvia Lorek and Doris Fuchs is to evolve social practices, technical regimes, and new business models through government policies to shift people’s motivation focus away from unlimited growth (Brown & Vergragt). However, those theories of social changes require “contestation between self-aware incumbents and challengers with specific agendas” (Brown & Vergragt). Unfortunately, there are no challengers: The US policies are in mutual support with large corporations, tying policymakers’ and their business interests together. And because the US focuses largely on “technological solutions and economic incentives for energy conservation” (Brown & Vergragt), it is unlikely for the government to directly challenge economic growth by proposing social policy reforms. The private sector is “similarly committed to growth and increased consumption”, making altercation of the current corporate capitalistic economy an action of conflicting interests (Brown & Vergragt). Thus, without competent and determined initiators, Lorek and Fuchs’ proposal is unviable. Another approach that has been implemented for years is the utilization of “ecological concerns or moral imperatives” to change societal behaviors by raising awareness of consumerism’s destructive impacts on the ecosystem and animals. Nevertheless, only minor progress has been made by a small number of the most dedicated and well-organized activist groups (Brown & Vergragt).
A more sustainable and effective solution is to shift the lifestyle preferences of the young generations by evoking their “fundamental strive for meaning and wellbeing in life” (Brown & Vergragt). This motivation has the power and constant presence that is “necessary for radical changes in people’s lifestyle choices and priorities”, which appeal to people’s environmental concern and morality (Brown & Vergragt). By targeting young teenagers, who are more receptive to changes, the approach is plausible of making greater progress. A massive survey conducted by Pew Research reflects that young generations are “connected, open to change, and racially and ethnically more diverse than any other American generation in history” (Brown & Vergragt). Thereby, focusing on adolescents is more practical than targeting all age groups as the two solutions mentioned above propose. Furthermore, the overall trend of millennial urbanization shown in a survey conducted by the Deputy Director for National Security Program of New America Foundation, combined with the expensive living expense in urban areas, is driving more people to engage in “collaborative, interdependent, and reciprocal lifestyles”, which contributes to wellbeing (Brown & Vergragt). Specifically, as people develop a sense of belonging in a community, they “engage in personal interactions, shorten distances, build trust and develop social identity” (not imaginary identities) instead of pursuing materialistic superiority (Brown & Vergragt). With the assistance of the socio-demographic trend of urbanization, the pursuit of well-being would consequently divert people’s tendency from “dependen[ding] on high-intensity private consumption” and focus more on human-network building. In their book Sharing Cities, Julian Agyeman and Duncan McLaren also argue that shared public spaces and social interactions can serve as “social equalizer[s]” to alleviate sharp social inequality (Agyeman). The effect of actively engaging in community interactions is demonstrated by New Orleans jazz funeral procession. By celebrating with neighbors instead of mourning alone, New Orleans achieves real happiness by coping with tragedies with public parades and dancing (Big Daddy’s Last Dance). Thus, more satisfied and fulfilled lives for many are achieved, showing that the vicious cycle of increasing consumerism can be impeded by focusing on tangible socialization.
Some critics point out that the potential conflicts and dissents caused by social inequality and diversification undermine the practicality of this solution. However, the nature of this approach is already addressing the problem. Disagreements caused by contradicting values and interests are inevitable. Nevertheless, as more young adults engage in collaborative social networks with the same pursuit of living a meaningful life and improving individual wellbeing, the overall trend of shifting cultural focus by exchanging different opinions among millennials leads to a positive outcome of a more equalized and closely-connected society. To increase citizens’ level of individual subjective wellbeing, countries with corporate capitalist systems need to promote the pursuit of meaningful life by encouraging physical collaboration within communities to alleviate the social alienation and disparity caused by the rampant consumerist culture.
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Big Daddy’s Last Dance: The Reverence and Revelry of a New Orleans Jazz Funeral Procession. Directed by Caitlin Greene and Jon Kasbe, 2016.
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