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Introduction to Consumerism and its Implications

Twenty-first-century America is an extremely consumerist society. Seventy percent of its GDP comes from consumption (Kulman 58). It has more shopping malls than it has high schools. An average American spends six hours shopping every week, while only forty minutes of the same week goes to playing with their children (Frantz).

A consumerist attitude has long been connected to things external. In his book “The High Price of Materialism,” Tim Kasser connects consumers with extrinsic goals, which he relates to seeking satisfaction from external sources and focusing on image, fame, and money (Kasser). In a consumerist society, individuals strive for possessions and money, an appealing image, and high status, a lifestyle that has both positive and negative implications. Consumerism, emphasizing money and possessions, does foster economic growth. Marsha L.Richins connects a purposeful pursuit of wealth to the success of the Industrial Revolution and capitalistic production and explains that a desire for goods may motivate workers to work harder and longer. She also notes that high levels of consumption bring more wealth to businesses, which would then lead to more investments in research and therefore greater productivity (Richins and Rudmin 217). However, consumerism has also been linked to lower life satisfaction and well-being, and movements like minimalism have risen to combat its ideals and values. As a matter of fact, The World Happiness Report explains that America is not a happy society; happiness levels among American adults have been on a gradual decline since 2000 (Twenge). These two conflicting aspects of consumerism bring up a question: Do the economic benefits of consumerism, a culture that emphasizes extrinsic goals, offset its negative effects on life evaluation in twenty-first-century America? The following report attempts to answer this question by examining the effects of consumerism on life evaluation in America from philosophical, scientific, and sociocultural perspectives and evaluating its economic benefits and their impact on happiness.

Philosophical and Religious Critique of Consumerism

Connecting consumerism, especially its aspect of striving for money and possessions, with unhappiness has a long history. Have you Renounced Pleasure? The Dalai Lama criticizes modern materialism for having individuals stuck in a permanent cycle of striving for external stimuli and preventing individuals from experiencing long-term, deep happiness (Have you Renounced Pleasure). The main ideas of Buddhism oppose “attachment” to things other than oneself. “Look within. Be still, free from fear and attachment,” says the Buddha (Mundahl 66). Likewise, Christianity also attacks materialistic desires; The Apostle Paul explains that desires to gain wealth lead individuals to temptation and to ruin themselves (Baylor University Thing).

Scientific Insights on Consumerism and Well-being

Scientific findings confirm these ancient philosophies, revealing that extrinsic goals are connected to decreased life satisfaction and well-being. In Aspirations and Well-being: Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Life Goals, Majda Rijavec et al. measured the psychological needs and well-being of students and evaluated the relationship between these two and different goal orientations. Students focused on extrinsic goals were found to have the second-lowest scores, meaning they were the second unhappiest, following right after students with neither extrinsic nor intrinsic goals. The results of the study make it very clear that extrinsic goals are detrimental to one’s well-being. Likewise, in Consumerism and its Discontents, Tori DeAngelis explains that a consumerist inclination, which he then connects to extrinsic goals, can lead to unhappiness by “taking time away from things that can nurture happiness.” Extrinsic goals distract individuals from what can actually make them happy — for instance, a solid relationship with friends — and can lead to decreased life satisfaction (DeAngelis).

Furthermore, research shows that extrinsic goals can be harmful to the process of defining one’s own identity. Research from the Journal of Youth and Adolescence presents a study in which pursuing extrinsic goals positively predicted ruminative exploration, meaning individuals with extrinsic goal orientations were more vulnerable to getting lost on their way to finding their identity. The writers also add that as these individuals increasingly move away from their inner self, their extrinsic goals eventually start to serve as a “compensatory mechanism,” eventually developing an “alienated sense of self.” (Luyckx)

Sociocultural Perspective and Addiction

From a sociocultural perspective, consumerism can lead to an even more serious problem: addiction. In Our Consuming Interest, Linda Kulman describes consumerism as “a competitive business, with a constant ratcheting up of expectations.” As individuals constantly compare themselves to what they see in the media and mass branding insists them to shop, even more, individuals get stuck in a cycle of constant buying from which they cannot easily escape (Kulman 58). Forced to join the competition, individuals living in consumerist cultures are eventually urged and compelled to do something that they actually do not want to do. The problem with consumerism and addiction does not stop there: consumerism and its strive for an appealing image and high status have also been linked to drug addiction. Tammy Ayres, a lecturer in criminology with a Ph.D. in Drug-Crime Relationships, explains that living in a consumerist culture makes individuals more vulnerable to drug addictions, as consumerism supports perfectionism and pressures people. Drugs can serve as a solution to the harmful subjectivities, imperfections, and pressures individuals experience under such perfectionism (Ayres 20).

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Economic Benefits and Life Satisfaction

Despite these findings, consumerist ideas are still advocated for the economic benefits they bring. In Materialism, Spending, and Affect: An Event-Sampling Study of Marketplace Behavior and Its Affective Costs, Kirk Warren Brown et al. conducted a study in which participants were asked to take tests that would measure their materialistic desires, emotional state, and annual income and to record their spending (the product they bought and its price) every time they bought something of $5 or more for three weeks. According to the study’s results, individuals with more materialistic desires were found to spend more (Brown 2277). Keynesian economics supports such an increase in spending, characterizing spending as “the most important driving force” of an economy, and argues that governments should intervene to stimulate spending at times of recession (Jahan et al.). Indeed, the pursuit of material possessions can eventually lead to a better economy.

The argument on consumerism and economic benefits is furthered by the claims that this economic success leads to increased life satisfaction. That is, the pursuit of possessions and money can lead to happiness, while it is detrimental to one’s satisfaction in some other cases. In High Income Improves Evaluation of Life But Not Emotional Well-Being, Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton prove this point by studying the relationship between emotional well-being, life evaluation, and income. In their research, Kahneman and Deaton define emotional well-being as “the emotional quality of an individual’s everyday experience” and life evaluation as “a person’s thoughts about his or her life.” According to their results, although income does not contribute to emotional well-being, it does predict higher life evaluation (Kahneman and Deaton 16489). Therefore, their research shows that economic success brought by consumerism can lead to greater life satisfaction. Survey data from seven different countries collected by Joseph Sirgy et al. adds support to this claim. In their research, Joseph Sirgy et al. hypothesized that although materialism may lead to lower life satisfaction when materialistic individuals evaluate their life using “fantasy-based expectations,” it may have the opposite effect when “reality-based expectations” are used, as doing so would cause individuals to feel more economically motivated than non-materialistic individuals, an attitude that the researchers explain may substantially increase one’s life satisfaction. The results of the survey supported their hypothesis, therefore showing not only the fact that the desire for money and possessions can lead to economic motivation but also that economic motivation can lead to happiness (Sirgy 349). This adds to the argument that the economic success brought by consumerist thinking can lead to better life evaluations.

Balancing Extrinsic and Intrinsic Goals

The argument on both sides, one criticizing the pursuit of extrinsic goals that characterize consumerism for its negative impact on individuals’ life satisfaction and the other supporting it for its economic benefits and the increase of life satisfaction accompanying these benefits seem to conflict with each other. However, the two arguments both have limitations. In a study conducted by James E. Burroughs, presented in the Journal of Consumer Research (Vol.29, No.3), people with both strong materialistic and prosocial values that conflicted with each other when decisions are being made were found to be the unhappiest group of their research, while other groups had similar, but less life stress. Burroughs explained that materialism becomes problematic only when it becomes more important than “things that really matter” (Burroughs 348). The Self-Determination Theory, which states that extrinsic goals have negative consequences on well-being when it is so strong it goes out of balance with intrinsic goals, conforms with this argument (Rijavec et al. 693). These ideas explain why there may be arguments that consumerism can lead to an increased level of life satisfaction when there is abundant evidence that shows the opposite result. Although the problem with addiction caused by the pursuit of extrinsic goals shows such a goal orientation has some inherent characteristics connected to unhappiness, an argument that would contradict Burrough’s claim that materialism itself is okay, Burrough’s idea and the Self-Determination Theory effectively limit the benefits of extrinsic goals: increased life satisfaction from economic success accompanying those goals can be experienced only when they do not go in conflict with intrinsic goals.

In more positive terms, this means that finding satisfaction from external sources can help improve life satisfaction as long as the individual successfully maintains the balance of those desires with his or her inner self. However, this process is extremely difficult. Living in an extremely consumerist society like twenty-first-century America, individuals will easily fall into a life of emphasizing extrinsic goals. In Culture and Consumer Behavior: The Role of Horizontal and Vertical Cultural Factors, Sharon Shavitt and Hyewon Cho explains that culture shapes consumers’ goals. In their research, they categorized different societies into two culture categories: vertical, ones that emphasize hierarchy or status, and horizontal, ones that value equality. They also described advertisements as “cultural artifacts that shed light on the goals and values of a society” and explained that vertical societies, which included the United States, were found to have advertisements that value status and prestige. This showed that its people had the same goals and values as their overall culture. Shavitt and Cho also added that consumers prefer brand concepts with the same orientation as their society to ones that do not (Shavitt and Cho). Their research proves that the goal orientations of individual consumers are shaped by the culture in which they live. In the U.S., where external values are overemphasized, valuing extrinsic goals over intrinsic goals may be a natural process for many. In addition, the Overjustification Effect explains that offering an external reward for one’s performance can decrease the individual’s motivation for the activity: an extrinsic reward can easily weaken the initial intrinsic motivation that the individual had (“Overjustification Effect”). The effect presents the idea that intrinsic goals are weaker than extrinsic goals; one’s intrinsic goals can easily be taken over by the power of external rewards. As a result, it is clear that enjoying increased life satisfaction from the economic achievements fostered by extrinsic motivations by balancing those goals with inner, deeper desires is very difficult. Therefore, the economic benefits of consumerism fail to offset its negative effects on individuals’ life satisfaction.

Minimalism as an Alternative Lifestyle

Minimalism, a movement that calls for a life characterized by a focus on “everything that remains” and throwing away excessive goods, has been presented as a solution to the problems caused by consumerism. Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, the founders of The Minimalist, explain their experience with the movement. Ryan, who felt depressed and stagnant even as he was earning more than 100,000 dollars a year, changed his life when he decided to live as a minimalist and is now happily enjoying his life. Combating against extrinsic goals and focusing on relationships, community, and self-growth (intrinsic goals), minimalism is linked to increased life satisfaction. Schmuck explains that as opposed to extrinsic goals, intrinsic goals satisfy “innate psychological needs” and therefore are “inherently satisfying to pursue” (Schmuck et al. 225)

Despite its obvious benefit for life satisfaction, minimalism has been criticized for the fact that it is a movement not accessible to all. In The Class Politics of Decluttering, Stephanie Land argues that people living in poverty do not benefit from minimalism: those people cannot “live with less,” as they already live only with what they really need. However, the lower class suffers less from the inherent problems of consumerist culture and therefore less requires changes. Majda Rijavec et al. reason that in poor countries, extrinsic goals can work as means for achieving intrinsic goals as they explain why students with both high extrinsic and intrinsic goals were found to be the happiest group in their study (Rijavec et al. 693). Their explanation demonstrates that in poorer settings, the balance between extrinsic and intrinsic goals can be more easily maintained, therefore having a weaker connection between extrinsic goals and psychological harm.

Conclusion: Re-evaluating Consumerism and Exploring Alternatives

Consumerism, a culture that seeks satisfaction from external sources, has been linked to both a decreased level of life satisfaction and economic success. Ideas from ancient philosophy to recent scientific research support the idea that consumerist thinking can lead to unhappiness, while others claim that it can bring economic success, which would then lead to increased life evaluation. These two conflicting ideas are resolved by the argument that extrinsic goals are harmful only when it goes in conflict with intrinsic goals, although this argument may not be entirely true considering the effects of pursuing high status on drug addictions. This idea shows that the benefits of consumerism can be enjoyed only when individuals maintain their balance with intrinsic goals, an extremely difficult process. Minimalism, a movement that strives to focus on what really matters in one’s life, has been presented as an idea to combat such an unhappy culture. While the movement has been criticized for only serving the middle and upper class, the lower class the movement excludes is less affected by the problems it combats. These ideas do not mean Americans should completely ignore their former lifestyles and move on to embrace minimalism; rather, it simply reveals the problems deeply connected to consumerism and suggests alternative ways of viewing life.

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