Does Consumerism Enhance Our Statuses in Society?
Most Americans like to buy things, lots and lots of things. Some items are necessary for life — we must have food, clothing, and shelter to meet our basic needs. We often believe, however, that an abundance of these items will make us happy. We like the ability to pick and choose what we wear, what we eat, and where we live. We believe this ability to choose what we like and to be able to buy things when we want are part of what makes us happy. We see that the Constitution of the United States guarantees our right to pursue happiness. But when does the pursuit of happiness through buying things become too much for us to bear? And how does buying the “right thing” enhance our status in society?
Consumerism in the U.S. is not only for the wealthy; people at all income levels in society fall prey to its temptations. According to Amitai Etzioni, many people “spend good parts of their income on status goods such as brand-name clothing, the ‘right’ kind of car, and other assorted items they don’t really need” (huffpost.com). Part of what fuels this drive for more and more things with the “right” branding is the idea that we need to keep up with others in society, especially those who seem to “have it all.” If only we have what ‘they’ have, we can be as happy as ‘they’ are. With the right stuff in our lives, happiness is guaranteed, right?
The people we consider ‘they’ in society are the ones we see as trendsetters in fashion, whether for what we wear or how we decorate our homes. They have the latest gadgets, the coolest technology, and the most beautiful places to live. At least, that is what we have been led to believe. But studies done in the U.S. and Japan both point to the evidence that, although incomes have risen dramatically, happiness and contentment have remained rather static (Etzioni). How can this be if more of the right things in life will make us happier people? Who sets the standard for what we should have? How are we influenced to buy the right things?
Much of the influence to get and acquire more and better items stems from advertising. Name brand companies sponsor television programs, whether it is for cereal, clothing, home furnishings, or vehicles. We are greatly swayed by these voices, even if we are not conscience of this fact. Take, for example, breakfast cereal. This American invention began as a result of widespread poor nutritional habits due to reliance on a protein-based diet and the resulting digestion issues this diet caused (Avey, pbs.org). Cereal was conceived by a doctor who ran a health spa; these sanatoriums, as there were then known, were popping up all around the country in answer to the poor health status of many Americans (Avey). Cereal gained popularity as advertisements on television targeted children, especially the commercials that showed their favorite cartoon characters eating the cereal (Avey). This marketing ploy continues today, with active, happy kids bounding off to school or out to excel in sports competitions after enjoying a bowl of their favorite cereal.
Cereal is only one example of the ways that advertising has influenced consumers to want more. I enjoy watching “HGTV,” especially the programs where drab, ugly houses are transformed into beautiful showcase homes. Sometimes, these home makeovers are so well done that I can’t imagine I could ever be comfortable living in such a pretty house! And although I will most likely never have the budgets those featured on the show have for transforming their house purchase, I can’t help but look around my own abode and see its glaring shortcomings.
The road to over-spending on items not needed, but greatly desired, is indeed a short one. I see the pretty home furnishings at the “reveal” in these home makeover shows and I can’t help but compare my own place to theirs and think about how it could look better. Maybe if I had bright new pillows for my sofa, I could be happier with the way the place looks. Maybe new window treatments would help. Maybe a new sofa would be the answer. Why not an entire new living room set? Suddenly, everything looks old, worn, dreary, and out of date. Prior to seeing how my dwelling could be transformed, I bought things because they had a practical purpose; now I wanted new things because the old stuff was no longer satisfying to me.
This subtle shift from needs to wants occurs almost without our knowing it. We have perfectly good things that we use everyday and suddenly, they lose their luster. We must have new things and we need them now! We see an advertisement about a great sale for home furnishings or new cars or new clothing, and we justify using our credit cards because it is a great deal, and that great of a deal may not come our way again! A little shopping spree will boost our mood, liven up our lives, and make us happy!
Perhaps in the pursuit of all this happiness we have lost sight of some very important values. These values do not come from the amount of possessions we have or the status in life we think they give us. Rather, these values come from the heart. The importance of treating others better than yourself (the Golden Rule) does not mean becoming a doormat for everyone to walk all over you. It means that “[i]nstead of focusing on oneself alone, an individual needs to develop an appreciation of others and the importance they have in themselves and in society” (Heddendorf, 96). When we value others for who they are, not what they have, we will come to a greater satisfaction and contentment in our lives.
This contentment begins with examining our motives for what we do — work to live or live to work. Of course, we need to work in order to secure our basic needs in life, such as food, shelter, and clothing. But when we value things more than people, and we strive for the latest technology, brand-name items, and home furnishing trend, we do great disservice to ourselves. We work so that we can buy more, accumulate more things, and have more status in owning the best things. Some people have so much stuff, they rent storage lockers to keep their excess stuff in!
All of this excess keeps us moving, sometimes from one job to another, working weekends in addition to a full week of work or working a second job after completing a full day at the first job. Is this really to make ends meet or more to keep up with whatever someone else may have? I often wonder how many people who buy their dream vacation home to make memories, as they claim on the TV shows, actually get to do just that? Are they really able to get out to the lake house or beach house every weekend and spend time with their families or are they so busy working to make those extra mortgage payments they rarely enjoy their purchases?
I see many uptight, stressed out people racing from one place to another, driving too fast, living too fast, flinging themselves (and often their children) from one activity to the next, but rarely do I see contentment. Too few people can offer a smile, let alone a pleasant greeting when passing by. We are too distracted, too focused on ourselves and what we must get done so that we barely notice there are other people all around us who are hurting, broken, misguided, and misunderstood. When we begin to care for other people, rather than worry over what we can get or do next to make us happy, we will see change occur in society.
The change we seek starts with our needs and wants. We need basic necessities, but we do not need brand-name items. We need just enough to make us fairly comfortable, but we do not need excessive amounts of things to make us happy. We can be content with what we have whether it is old or new, as long as we have adequate, healthy food, secure, sturdy shelter, and clothing that fits and keeps us comfortable. We need not worry about getting things that we think will elevate our status in life.
In the Bible, in Matthew 6:25–34, Jesus gives us great advice about how to live the contented life. He reminds us that life is more than food and the body is more than clothing; after all, does worrying increase our length of life? Does chasing after bigger homes, more expensive cars, and lavish vacations make us more content? God knows just what we need to be content, and he will provide what we need. As we acknowledge our dependence on him, rather than striving to make it on our own, he will fill us with peace and joy. These are the things that will make our lives complete: to value others and be valued for who we are, not for what we own.
Avey, Tori. “What’s for Breakfast? Discover the History of Cereal.” www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/history-of-cereal/. 29 November 2012. Web accessed 21 October 2017.
Etzioni, Amitai. “The Crisis of American Consumerism.” www.huffingtonpost.com/amitai-etzioni/the-crisis-of-american-co_b_1855390.html. 4 September 2012. Web accessed 21 October 2017.
Heddendorf, Russell. “Status and Role.” Christian Perspectives on Sociology. Edited by Stephan A. Grunlan and Milton Reimer. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001.
The Bible. New International Version Study Bible, Zondervan, 1985.