Today is Black Friday, our national holiday built solely to motivate shopping. One hundred thirty-five million Americans are expected to hit brick-and-mortar and online stores this weekend, spending on more stuff at a time when the average citizen already has 300,000 possessions. In 2014, we spent more than $51 billion during the long Black Friday weekend. This holiday season, according to a recent Gallup Poll, Americans are budgeting to spend 15 percent more.
Our spendthrift ways are a bit problematic considering the average household already owes $7,500 in credit card debt. Last year, thirty-nine percent of Americans went over their Christmas budget. And it takes about two or three months for American families pulling in less than $100,000 just to pay off their holiday splurges.
Reflecting on all of this, the big question becomes: What is all of this holiday spending for? Is all of this conspicuous consumption putting us on the path to a Merry Christmas? According to smart people who study this sort of thing, the answer is no. "The path to a Merry Christmas comes not from purchasing many expensive gifts at the mall, wrapping them, and placing them under the tree," writes professors Tim Kasser and Kennon Sheldon in their study "What Makes for a Merry Christmas."
If our consumerism actually made us happy, America would be by far the world's happiest nation. But according to the most recent survey by the World Happiness Report, the happiest people live in Switzerland, followed closely by Iceland, Denmark, and Norway. In 15th place, behind Mexico, is the USA. "In the United States, we have more money than any country in the history of the world," said Andrew Morgan. "We're richer than anyone's ever been and yet we fail on indexes that measure things like happiness."
In fact, despite our increased spending around the holidays, a poll by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that nearly three-fourths of people feel more "anxious or depressed" during the jolly season than the rest of the year.
Instead of spending, Kasser and Sheldon say the way to happiness is "satisfying deeper needs to be close to one's family and find meaning in life." Stuff you can't buy.
And yet, the prosperity of the nation requires that we be good cogs in the economic machine. To keep us spending, the system bombards us with messages to buy, buy, buy. One of the first things President Bush said after 9/11 was, "I encourage you all to go shopping more." The government wants this system to work so badly that they don't even tax advertising dollars, they consider that a business expense.
And in many ways, it's the advertising that convinces us that the things we buy can bring us happiness. We're promised that this is shampoo will give us glistening hair that'll make everyone find us attractive or that a pair of new sneakers will make us effortlessly cool or a drop-top convertible will makes us feel young again.
Just take a look at the awesome new holiday ad from Coach where a stylish woman kicks Christmas's ass when she strolls into Santa's workshop, knocks him out, and takes the Coach bag she covets. She's cool, she's stylish, she's tougher and smarter than Santa, and she knows how to get exactly what she wants. If we want to be her, we must value a Coach bag and do whatever we have to in order to get it.
Bob Dorfman, a veteran marketing executive, said people repeatedly fall for advertisements like this for the same reason we fall for romantic comedies. "We always like hearing stories about somebody who is not in a good place and something happens to them and in the end they end up happy," Dorfman said. "Advertisers want to create some magic around a product or service. Make it something that you feel is unique or special and the fact that you would buy this product rubs off on you and it makes you a little more special, it makes you a little bit better, and a little happier."
But will we ever reach the sense of happiness and contentment that the ads promise? Purchasing things that fulfill our most basic human needs—food, shelter, basic clothing—do indeed satisfy us, but after we rise above the level of subsistence and enter into the marketplace of sexy goods, the promises of happiness climb dizzyingly high and the returns droop depressingly low. But the system has a message for you: If the last purchase didn't make you happy, the solution is to buy more. So we buy more, hoping that the next thing will be the one that finally does it. But it doesn't and on we go chasing happiness from store to store, never catching it.
We are all on a gigantic hamster wheel, running towards something that will always be out of our grasp.
"The desire to be materialistic is basic to being human," said Tim Kasser, a professor of psychology at Knox College and the author of a book called The High Price of Materialism. "From what I understand, evolutionarily there is something very basic about people that leads them to want to have stuff and the status that stuff conveys. We're primates and most primates are pretty status-oriented. One of the reasons why we as a species were able to survive is we are excellent collectors of stuff. Spears and hoes and seeds and stuff like that. That's part of who we are. What Madison Avenue and consumer capitalism have done is to find excellent ways to encourage and entice people to pursue that particular desire."
Over the centuries our approach to acquiring stuff has changed. "Philosophers always said don't let materialism get out of hand," Kasser said. "If you look back at the medieval ages a lot of the basic sins are oriented around materialism. But once we as a world transferred over to the consumer capitalist society, that particular set of desires becomes encouraged and held up as one of the highest goods and something that is a way to build a meaningful happy life."
However, psychologists say the basis of true happiness is meaningful relationships, not materialism. "From what we know from dozens of studies," said Professor Kasser, "the more people have the materialistic values, the less happy they are. The consumption mindset can distract us from the more direct and satisfying ways to live our lives. And that's why a consumption-oriented lifestyle leads to not being a very happy one."
However, none of the people I spoke to suggested we should all just stop buying stuff. We live in a world where just questioning consumerism seems bizarre, but we can reject its commands and reclaim some of our power from it. "We have to begin to look at the things we're bringing into our life," Morgan said. "We have to evaluate them on the basis of is this something that I'm going to use up or something that I'm going to invest in? Buy things that are made with quality and care, things you're going to hold onto."
Or maybe we can find ways to send the message of love this holiday season without buying things at all. "If you ask my wife," Professor Kasser said, "the best present I ever gave her happened a couple of years ago. There was one particular chore that she just hated. She had to wash the plastic bags and hang them up so we could reuse them. So I said, 'I will do this chore from now on.' You should've seen the look on her face. I think that was meaningful because it really showed that I knew her and that I loved her."
Kasser said for Christmas he gives his kids coupons entitling them to get a parent to play a game with them or clean up a mess they've made. I told my kids I was going to try that this year and they were so excited they started jumping around like they'd won the lottery. Looks like we might finally win Christmas.
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