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We live in a world committed to making purchases as easy as possible. But at what cost?
Illustration by Seba Cestaro
I needed to buy a suede brush. I own a pair of boots that required a little TLC, and after some light research, found that a suede brush was the tool to do the job.
I would go on to spend several hours spread over a couple days during the fall of 2016 trying to track one down. I tried multiple drugstores but found no suede brush, just some unimpressively small shoe polish kits, jammed in the space between aisles at Duane Reade. My local shoe repair shop closed before I could get there after work. And so I turned to Amazon, spent $7.28 on a Kiwi Suede and Nubuck Care Kit, and, slightly more slowly than you can say “prime,” it was delivered to my place of business.
Despite my initial hustle, no satisfaction followed. I had done the work to get the Kiwi Suede and Nubuck Care Kit, but not work that felt good. I spent money I had earned and my time to find this item. But the effort I put in to actually buy it was minimal—I didn’t even have to make sure I was home when it was delivered—and my sense of accomplishment equaled that. I had done something that was supposed to make my life easier, and it might have, but the next step that I assumed would follow—happiness—eluded me. Shopping online had saved me the valuable commodity of time, but in truth, I’d just spent my time differently, in front of a computer.
Technology is supposed to solve for two simultaneous endeavors: acquiring what we want, and saving time. After all, time is the most valuable commodity we have, to the point where our consideration of it as a type of currency has given it its own term, time affluence. Technology is supposed to make it easier for us to do what we really want to be doing—be around loved ones, go outside, exercise, eat healthier. What better way to simplify life than to distance ourselves from the part of capitalism that ties us to it most of all: the protracted act of physically buying things?
But 2016 Pew study about online shopping found that 65 percent of online shoppers prefer buying things in person when they can, compared with 34 percent of people who prefer online. Something is shifting when we buy without having to physically travel to a store. Some would argue it’s the human interaction that is lost, or the transportation to the buying, or merely the planning to get there in the first place, but maybe there’s something else too: the loss of going about your business in a more active manner, as opposed to a more passive one.
The internet has ostensibly liberated us from the limitations of the 24 hours we have in a day, and rolling waves of studies have been done to figure out what good and bad it has done for us, particularly its impact on consumer culture, which takes up so many of our days. The same Pew study found that most Americans don’t shop online constantly: “nearly six-in-ten Americans say they buy online less often than a few times a month (37%) or they never make any online purchases (20%).”
These numbers shifted in the direction you’d think they would the younger the respondents were. And the trend among our country’s largest, most successful companies is to offer what young people want, and make not going to the store as easy as possible. Companies like Blue Apron (which not only preps your food but brings it to you and tells you how to cook it) or Amazon (which sells you anything you need whenever you need it) are accommodating not just our present, but a future in which the majority of our society is full of formerly young people who want it Right Now.
We are driven to force as much leisure into our lives as possible—it’s what the rich do, after all. The basic thinking seems to be that we keep ourselves busy so we can achieve our deepest wishes, and allow ourselves to do what we really want, which is often nothing (think of the archetype of the billionaire CEO whose workdays are packed to the gills but who also takes lavish vacations). But in 2018, researchers at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and the National University of Singapore’s Business School proposed that our true motive is actually the reverse: “that people pursue goals in order to engage in busyness.”
In one experiment, professors Adelle X. Yang and Christopher K. Hsee had study participants fill out a survey and told them they could drop it off in one of two locations: nearby, but they would have to wait 15 minutes, or an immediate dropoff at a site that was a 12- to 15-minute walk away round-trip. Half the participants were given identical rewards upon completing each task, either dark or milk chocolate. The other half were told that one location had dark and the other milk (the “distribution of flavors was counterbalanced,” the researchers note):
When the chocolate flavors were identical at the two locations, most participants (68%) chose to drop the survey at the nearby location and wait idly afterwards. But when the chocolate flavors were different, most participants (59%) chose to drop the survey at the faraway location. Moreover, those who dropped off the survey at the faraway location were significantly happier than those who dropped off the survey at the nearby location.
“To sum up, people dread idleness yet were not willing to engage in busyness unless they could justify the busyness with a purpose,” Yang and Hsee wrote. They expanded on the idea, exploring how, in an increasingly technological world, humans choose what activities to spend their time on. Being too busy, whether that’s because you’re rich or poor, cannot end in happiness. But, they wrote, “As we move forward, it ought to be understood that the relative affluence of time does not guarantee the ultimate freedom of human existence, but rather escalates the need for purposeful busyness.”
Other research has suggested that spending money on things that will save time brings more happiness than the objects themselves, because those who do it feel less pressure to get things done. “People often complain of being in a time bind not only because they are objectively busy, but also because they perceive a lack of control over their time,” researchers wrote in the study, published in 2017 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
But how much time we are saving, and what we should do with it, is a different story. “Ironically, spending too much money on time-saving services could undermine perceptions of personal control, by leading people to infer that they are unable to handle any daily tasks, potentially reducing well-being,” the researchers added.
Recently, I went to lunch with my friend Allison. At the end of the meal, I picked up her bag for her and found that it was surprisingly heavy. It turned out she’d gone to the bank to pick up sleeves to roll her spare change in, and was returning said change rolls for deposit, an activity I used to love as a child for its soothing repetitiveness, but assumed had gone the way of depositing checks in person. I asked her why she didn’t just take her money to a Coinstar. “They take a cut!” she told me. “Plus, I like the activity of rolling coins.”
“Increasingly these days, one person’s errands have become another person’s occupation,” Joan Kron wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 1990, a decade before Craigslist came to New York City and almost two before TaskRabbit was created. The people she was profiling were, if it was not obvious, rich, but writing today, her statement would largely stand, perhaps amended slightly to “one person’s errands have become a website’s responsibility to outsource to individuals the original person will never meet” (though that’s hardly very pithy). Given that most errands involve financial transactions, it’s that connection to purposefulness that seems key.
Purchasing online is supposed to make us feel as if we’re liberated from the reins of society that prevent us from doing the things we love to do, but we’re as tethered as we ever have been—maybe even more so because we think we’re not—without the active nature of the process. As with most things, there’s some happy medium we need to find, between using tools to balance our lives and detaching ourselves from what fills our days with meaning. To achieve freedom, we’d need to leave the system entirely, but if we’re in it and expect success, we must be truly in it.
“In busyness, time generates happiness, as long as it is used toward a purpose, even a feebly justifiable one,” Yang and Hsee wrote in their study. Or, as Charlotte Ford, a socialite and etiquette adviser (and a great-granddaughter of the mass production innovator Henry Ford) explained to the Times Magazine 32 years ago, “I like having my little list and crossing items off. It sort of makes you feel like you’re moving along. Getting things done.” Finding that suede brush.
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