Consumption and Short-Termism
The New Philosopher dedicated a recent issue to The Property Wars in which there were articles by bestselling author Thomas Piketty in which he states that the current structure of property rights is a major cause of inequality. There was also a piece on consumerism and happiness
Many have argued that money doesn’t buy happiness and the most prominent economist to write about this was Richard Layard in his 2005 book ‘Happiness’. Rich countries are no happier than poor ones – real US incomes more than doubled after 1950 while happiness flatlined – and across the chequerboard of nations happiness goes up barely a jot beyond a per capita income of $20,000. Why to we buy stuff? The Gilded Age in the 19th century was a time of industrialisation and consumerism with property being “anything that the individual may acquire which sustains and prolongs life…and gives an advantage over opposing forces” – The Psychology of Ownership by Linus Kline and CJ France. In Australia, the lion’s share of household debt goes to mortgages on the family home, and world-wide the two best selling items are soft drink and potato chips. In the name of property and calories we slay the credit card and kill our domestic bottom line.
In reality, evolution may let us indulge our intellect, but feelings were there first and quickly remind us of this when we forget to do the basics like eating and sleeping. Theorists have argued that feeling good about products / services is central to our belief that they are good for us. As we find it hard to make decisions without feelings the advertising industry have entered the scene. John Kenneth Galbraith, in his book The Affluent Society, blamed the vast increase in consumption in the post-war period on companies that were now producing items which consumers would desired but not necessarily needed. Today brand building has become dominant in our society and the goal of each brand is to make you feel good about the product. For example:
- A certain Mexican beer takes you to a part of the world where you want to be – a beach with a beautiful sunset.
- A car company takes you to a ski resort amongst a picturesque Alpine environment.
Products become substitutes for experience as you get delivered the feelings by association – virtual reality with consuming a product. With a brand meaning more pleasure for consumers it is no wonder that there is greater consumption which leads to overspending. The 5th edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders includes ‘excessive acquisition’ as a feature of ‘hoarding disorder’. And the brain scan data are in too: compulsive buyers light up the same reward centre that rats trigger with a lever, getting rewards until they drop.
In getting used to the short-term feel good factor of material possessions, we shall over invest in acquiring them at the expense of our leisure. Consumers do underestimate the hedonic treadmill and as a result our life can be too focused on working and making money, and away from other pursuits.
The New Philosopher – Issue #9 ‘Property Wars’ – 2015
Happiness – Richard Layard – 2005