Is Consumerism Robbing Us of Our Humanism and Happiness?

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Jimmy Carter would say that consumerism is killing us…or at least our human spirit…

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but one owns. But we’ve discovered that only things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose. — Jimmy Carter

We are coerced to consume.

Since the 1860s and the Industrial Revolution, the world has been consuming at an ever greater rate. The onset of American Consumerism really hit in the Roaring 20’s, a decade of huge prosperity fueled by the advancements of two automobile titans in the 1910s and 1920s. The first was Henry Ford, whose invention of the automobile and introduction of automated assembly lines, transformed American manufacturing into a mass production machine.

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Americans’ love affair with the automobile, marked the beginning stages of our shift toward extreme consumerism.

Alfred Sloan, President of General Motors, designed and sold cars based on status, price and luxury. Applying the psychology of our basic human desire for status and belonging, Sloan advertised cars as symbols of wealth and prestige. His merchandising approach proved a critical aspect of success for businesses to master in a consumer society.

The inventions of electricity and the telephone, both of which quickly permeated the majority of American households, further drove even more consumerism. It all ran amuck until the stock market crash and The Great Depression that followed.

Then the 1950’s hit and a second surge of extreme American consumerism emerged. It was Post WWII and even the government told us we needed to consume more to be Patriotic Citizens. New industries grew out of the huge boom in consumer spending: TV, plastics, jet engines, entertainment media, mass housing and more.

Why is consumerism a problem?

Food, car, clothing, electronics, appliance, pharmaceutical companies…and even the U.S. government seduce us to consume more. Consumerism pressures are everywhere — on our phones, social media apps, websites, TV shows, movies, billboards, and retail checkouts. For the past hundred years, we’ve grown to believe having more stuff is tantamount to happiness. It defines our current social norms of success.

The problem is, all this overconsumption is not making us happier. In fact, it’s making us and our planet sicker and unhappier than ever. Some of the serious consequences of consumerism include:

1. High debt accumulation.
American household debt — including mortgages, student loans, car loans, credit card debts, etc. — has increased tremendously. It reached $13 trillion last year according to the New York Fed. Most Americans rush to buy the latest trends in fashion, technology, cars, and house furnishings on credit. As a result, they defer a real need for financial planning, budgeting, and retirement savings.

2. Mental health issues.
Consuming creates a hunger that can’t be satiated. Impulsive buying is the result of addictive “retail therapy” which we use to soothe hurt feelings or distract us from our problems. Ironically, extreme consumerism breeds only more unhappiness, discontent, anxiety and depression. Money and things cannot fulfill the true meaning and belonging we seek.

3. Environmental damages. We are paying a high price for the bad habit of consumerism. It’s slowly destroying the natural habitats and ecosystems critical to sustaining our livelihood. It’s a recipe for disaster when consumerism pushes endlessly higher, and production processes continue to be energy hogging and waste generating drains on our resources.

Don’t let consumerism consume you.

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I’m by no means perfect in curbing my habit of consumption, but I’ve made huge strides in shifting what and how I consume. This has improved both my attitude and satisfaction in life. I’ve learned that consumerism is just a habit that I have the power to replace with better habits that bring the genuine happiness I seek.

I constantly strive to stay aware and intentional about my consumption choices, opting to prioritize my spending on prudent financial investments that give me independence and freedom, and on relationships and experiences that inspire me to laughter, gratitude and growth. It feels freeing to give up consumerism.

“If one’s life is simple, contentment has to come. Simplicity is extremely important for happiness. Having few desires, feeling satisfied with what you have, is very vital.”-The Dalai Lama

If you want true contentment, take a hard look at your own behavior and challenge the status quo of the spending economy. To accelerate your search for more meaning and satisfaction in life, you can also start learning about alternative ways to achieve financial independence by reading Rat Race Consumes the Life and Health of Billable Hours Professionals.