“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not.”
It began with a blouse.
A mustard coloured faux-silk number hanging in one of those colossal department stores, it wasn’t anything special. It’s ordinariness perhaps the very thing that made me aware of a particular kind of paradox.
A person feels an increasing sense of lack ad deprivation yet has lost none of their belongings?
See, if you’d asked me four months ago if I owned enough clothes, the answer was an easy yes. Then, I started working in the city, spending lunch breaks browsing shops; looking for nothing and always finding something to add to an ever-expanding wish list. An infamous tight-ass, I rarely purchased anything, and yet while my wallet remained unchanged by this new habit, my heart felt a shift.
Leaving me, standing before that blouse for the 2nd time in a week, asking the question; if feelings of lack are something we can cultivate, is it also something we can control?
Fortunately for us, some extremely intelligent philosophers and psychologists have asked this very question. But first, let’s rewind to 1940’s America.
HOW IT BEGAN
The war is over, and soldiers return to a country dramatically different to the one they left to protect; one armed with the infrastructure necessary for wartime production but no more war to produce for. At a glance the math was simple; returning men needed work, factories had the jobs after women retired their rivets and returned to the kitchen, all that was needed was a cause to create for.
Turns out, they had 132.1 million causes, otherwise known as consumers.
To speed things along, Government increased wages through the Employment Act of 1946, while the GI Bill financially enabled millions of men (and the odd independent woman) to buy homes, start businesses and study further. Employment and salaries rose; however, people were used to spending on what was needed and nothing more. So, how do you convince these prudent folks to use their new discretionary income to increase consumption rather than savings?
In the words of Paul Mazur of Lehman “We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture,” he said in *. “People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
This new mentality came in the form of consumer capitalism. An economic system that positioned mass consumption as the primary means to happiness via upward mobility, status and freedom (if you were fortunate enough to be white and middle class, that is). Fortunately, this practice of purchasing the good life fit neatly within James Truslow’s newly minted paradigm of the ‘American Dream’, which defined success in relation to ability, achievement and unlimited autonomy.
By the 1950s the golden age of consumerism was in full swing. Mass-production grew increasingly productive, and people finally had a compelling reason to purchase more goods that cost less.
But make no mistake, capitalism’s crude formula for contentment (stuff = joy) wasn’t explicitly stated but instead surreptitiously laced into advertisements. A tactic designed by the father of Public Relations, Edward Bernays. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, his uncle’s, Sigmund Freud, might.
Made famous by his questionable theories on sexuality, Freud was also a key challenger of the Enlightenment’s cartesian belief that people were rational. Instead, the Austrian psychoanalysis believed we were motivated by unconscious drives and automatic urges, which made us vulnerable to internal self-deception and external manipulation.
However, it was his ex-soldier nephew Bernays asked the question; if Germany could use propaganda to shape people’s behaviour, couldn’t businesses use media to do the same?
The world as we know it today is irrevocable proof they could.
See, Bernays anticipated the ways ads could psychological and social mechanisms encourage consumption. The key being that they wouldn’t aim for the attention of eyes or logic of mind, but the heart and its desires.
Long gone are the days when advertisements appealed to our mind by promoting functionality. Now, our heart is targeted, not by items, but images of a good life exclusively available through the accumulation of commodities.
DESIRE IS TAUGHT… AND CYCLIC
We are habituated, through rhythmic and repetitive exposure to messages and images both within our families and outside our homes, to want things beyond our basic needs. Often through the promise of a good, or better, life.
A blouse is no longer just a blouse, a laptop isn’t just a tool and cars are more than transportation. Fashion has unequivocally outpaced function, purely because once we hit excess, a function is null and void. It’s no longer a need, it’s a want.
So, for the most part, material desire is taught, chiefly by those profiting from its fulfilment. But the second mechanic of desire that is key to understand is that it’s cyclic.
13th Century philosopher Thomas Aquinas defined human desire as an internal motion towards an object one decides is suitable for themselves. However, this was immediately followed by a warning that every time one gratifies a passion, they reinforce desire towards similar objects in the future.
At a glance, it may seem like just one set of AirPods or bottle of aftershave, just a little (hard-earned) money. But according to Aquinas, it’s not. Shopping, even the window variety, is a practice. One that, if done enough times, becomes a habit. A second nature, which we initially form, but then are formed by.
This second part is important.
Because we may choose to go into the shop, scroll the online store, mooch around the mall, at first. But done enough times, the agency gives way and it’s the momentum of habit that keeps us coming back; unconscious and compulsive even when it ceases to be satisfying or enjoyable.
The concept of momentum is key here; the fact that the relentless promotion of unreflective consumption can reach a point where even if you’re passive, you’ll more likely participate than not.
This wouldn’t be problematic if it weren’t for the fact that, according to intelligent people like Aristotle, if one cannot orientate thoughts, desires and actions towards things of ultimate value, a worthy life isn’t just difficult to attain but impossible.
IT’S NEVER QUESTIONED
Or as sociologist Robert Wuthno puts it, “we live in a materialist culture, and we want money and possessions and very few people have heard a powerful voice telling them to resist those impulses, or how to resist those impulses.”
Why should one resist, you ask?
Putting the depletion of finite resources, exploitation of populations and general prioritisation of profit over life aside, consumption is simply crap at delivering lasting happiness. At least, according to almost every subject on the topic.
In 2007, Sirgy, Lee, and Rahtz found rather than being conscious or reflective about consumption, materialistic people “allow material possessions to play a central role in their lives”.
Being materialistic may mean you attain more, higher-quality goods (Brickman and Campbell 1971) but it’s all rather pointless when you factor in Lyubomirsky’s hedonic adaptation theory, which describes the human propensity for adjusting to new environments or objects and returning to initial levels of dissatisfaction. Often the reason we become trapped in a cycle of consumption.
All the while, research suggests the most important and sustainable sources of life satisfaction are in fact nonmaterial (Myers and Diener, 1995), while the pursuit of intrinsic goals provides far more direct and effective paths to happiness (Tatzel 2002).
Simply put? Despite reaching what Ikea Director Steve Howard, called ‘peak stuff’. All experiential and empirical evidence shows this hasn’t been accompanied by peak happiness.
So, it’s time for a new way. One of disruptive and resistance and self-restraint.
RESISTANCE AS REBELLION
If you literally shut off at the thought of self-restraint, welcome to the club, consisting of almost all liberally raised Westerners who associate temperance with a Victorian, moralistic rejection of sex, alcohol and fun in general.
As Harvard ethicist Louke van Wensveen says, terms like temperance are “riddled with negative connotations, such as small-mindedness, prudishness, preachiness, missionary zeal, and especially lack of joy.”
No, we’d prefer to be ‘free’ thank you. Although our friend Freud would disagree, claiming those who live from a principle of pleasure rather than restraint are more immature than emancipated.
Fortunately, in this case, the process of resistance doesn’t involve an immense restriction or contemporary renunciation, but a simple equation:
Enough = Desire + Accumulation
In his book Crimes of England, G. K. Chesterton makes a simple yet profound remark; “there are two ways to get enough. One is to accumulate more and more the other is to desire less”.
Similarly, Jean-Jacque Rousseau in his book Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754) argued wealth doesn’t involve having many things but having what we long for.
Meaning, wealth isn’t absolute but relative to desire.
Every time we seek something we cannot afford, we grow poorer, regardless of our belongings. But it goes both ways. Every time we feel satisfied with what we have, we can be counted as rich.
Like Chesterton, Rousseau saw two ways to become wealthier; gain more money or lessen your desires.
The trouble is that our culture succeeds spectacularly in the promoting former, conveniently leaving out the other (less commodifiable) side. Busy earning more money to purchase more stuff, we rarely stop and consider how constant comparison inflates our definition of ‘enough’, while advertising increases our desires.
On and on the goalposts shift.
So, what is one to do?
Realistically, the question isn’t whether or not to consume (that will happy regardless unless you consider taking up life as a monk in a forest á la Walden style), but how we focus on the part of the equation we know results in sustained joy (coincidentally it’s the side we don’t need a bigger paycheck to improve).
Granted, reworking our desires and repositioning our heart seems a hell of a lot harder than simply purchasing that jacket on Afterpay. Yet more and more as I participate in consumer capitalism, I feel I’m playing the short-term game with long-term homes. Always holding out for the commodity that will defy that hedonic adaptation theory. More and more, I’m disappointed. The mustard blouse is purchased, cherished, then forgotten as life and it’s lusts move on.
Heart work is deep work but we can all start, wherever we are. We can be a little more cynical when we’re told the good life has a price tag, whether it’s by traditional TV ad or an elusive cultural expectation. Actually question our hyperinflated category of ‘needs’ and see what could be shifted into ‘wants’, or surrendered entirely.
We can actively embody desire towards something, then see what it feels like to let it go, and look towards all the things we have that we’ve forgotten, or the people we’ve overlooked. Sure, gratitude sounds foolish, but it’s a tactic with science on its side.
As for the mustard blouse? I never did purchase it; which is good for my wallet, and I suppose my heart too.