Do your possessions define you?

In Prosperity Without Growth, Tim Jackson confronts the conflict between our modern economic systems, which are designed to operate through exponential growth and high materiel throughput, and the limits of a finite planet.   Of all the factors that influence that exponential growth, one constantly feeds the engine of growth and drives people towards continued consumerism.  The social logic of consumerism exists in what Jackson calls a symbolic language “in which we communicate continually with each other, not just about the raw stuff, but about what really matters to us: family, friendship, sense of belonging, community, identity, social status, meaning, and purpose in life” (Jackson 51).

In fact, that logic goes beyond positional competition, where we try to appear more prosperous than our neighbors and peers by having more stuff, to what Russell Belk calls cathexis, or the extension of our self-identity onto the objects that we own or associate with:

“It seems an inescapable fact of modern life that we learn, define, and remind ourselves of who we are by our possessions… we seek to express ourselves through possessions and use material possessions to seek happiness, remind ourselves of experiences, accomplishments, and other people in our lives, and even create a sense of immortality after death. Our accumulation of possessions provides a sense of past and tells us who we are, where we have come from, and perhaps where we are going.” (Belk 160)

However, new research indicates that in fact, our possessions may not provide us the happiness that we seek.  Elizabeth W. Dunn, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, has found that wealth itself can reduce our ability to savor positive experiences (Quoidbach 10), and that spending our money on experiences, like hiking the White Mountains, as opposed to objects, like a new couch, produces longer lasting satisfaction (Rosenbloom).

It seems, then, that we humans are like a dog chasing our own tail; we work longer hours in order to make more money, and we use that money to buy commodities that we understand will bring us happiness.  However, when we find that we are not happy, we buy more commodities in search of that elusive happiness.  It is the symbolic language, which corporations twist and turn so well in advertising, which pushes us onward in our search.

Amartya Sen, one of the grandfathers of developmental economics, and a Professor at Harvard University, sought to find a way beyond that social logic in his essay, “The Living Standard.”  Sen advises us to consider commodities “in terms of [their] contributions to capabilities and freedom” rather than simply in terms of opulence or object utility (Sen 293).  Jerome Segal goes a step further by insisting that the standard of living cannot be tied directly to increased consumption, as misleading measures such as Gross Domestic Product do.  In fact, Segal identifies our standard of living is an “art form. It is very much a matter of knowing how to live and may involve a broad range of knowledeges and psychological capabilities” (Segal 357).  That complexity goes beyond concrete functionings like shelter, transportation, and health, and to subjective conceptions like beauty and self-esteem.

Considering the rat race of social competition that we find ourselves in, and the importance that we place upon the objects and commodities that we possess, how can we transform our society and recreate the dominant notion of standard of living, which revolves around opulence?  Environmental advocates often urge consumers to make “green” consumption decisions – to choose the option of consumption with a lower environmental impact.  For instance, instead of buying an object that will be thrown away, buy one that will last longer and have a lower resource intensity.

However, that “Green” consumption logic misses the larger point.  As Dunn and Belk identify, the reason that we choose to buy many objects in the first place is problematic – whether it is to appear successful, or to satisfy some perceived need.  However, as the recent Economic crisis, where many Americans overleveraged themselves on cheap debt, shows, the sacrifice to attain those objects can exact a greater loss than the value of what it is we think we are buying.  In fact, the experiences that will make us happier, which Dunn identifies in her research, may become less available because of increased work hours.

It seems, then, that we are lost in the noise of our own consumption.  The messages are non-stop and pervasive.  Just try spending an hour in which you are not exposed to commercial advertisement; unless you live in the wilderness, that silence is nearly impossible.  To overcome this, we need to create space in our lives in which we look beyond the commercial marketplace, and to our own true happiness.  In fact, as labor, we may need to demand a 30-hour workweek, like European societies like France obtained long ago.  The extra free time would allow people to reprioritize the experience that can truly make them happy.  Additionally, a 30-hour workweek would allow the labor market to expand, providing more opportunity for work.

However, reduced work would not solve the dilemma of social competition on its own.  The symbolic power of a measure like GDP would have to be replaced.  In fact one organization, called the State of the USA, is starting a new index, which will attempt to provide a “common ground” and a “shared set of facts” from which we can better analyze our standard of living (Hoening).  This is an improvement, but ultimately, until we can come to a consensus about what a sustainable future is, and transform our economy to meet those needs, we will not find the happiness that we seek.

Works Cited

Belk, Russell W.  “Possessions and the Extended Self.”  The Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 15 No. 2, September 1988.  Pg 139-168, PDF.

Giridharadas, Anand.  “Getting In (and Out of) Line.”  The New York Times, 8 August 2010.  Pg. WK 5.  Print.

Hoening, Christopher.  “Working Towards a Key National Indicator System.”  StateoftheUSA.org, 22April2010. Web, 09August2010.

Jackson, Tim.  Prosperity Without Growth: Economics For a Finite Planet.  Earthscan: London, 2009. Print.

Nussbaum, Martha.  “The Good as Discipline, The Good as Freedom.”  Ethics of Consumption: The Good Life, Ethics, and Global Stewardship.  David A. Crocker and Toby Linden, Eds.  Landham, MD/Oxford, UK: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.  Pg 313-341, Print.

Rosenbloom, Stephanie.  “But Will It Make You Happy?” The New York Times, 8 August 2010.  Pg. BU 1.  Print.

Segal, Jerome M. “Living at a High Economic Standard: A Functioning Analysis.” Ethics of Consumption: The Good Life, Ethics, and Global Stewardship. David A. Crocker and Toby Linden, Eds.  Landham, MD/Oxford, UK: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998. Pg 342-365, Print.

Sen, Aramrtya.  “The Living Standard.” Ethics of Consumption: The Good Life, Ethics, and Global Stewardship.  David A. Crocker and Toby Linden, Eds.  Landham, MD/Oxford, UK: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998. Pg 287-311, Print.

Quoidbach, J., Dunn, E.W., Petrides, K. V., & Mikolajczak, M. “Money giveth, money taketh away: The dual effect of wealth on happiness.” Psychological Science. Unknown.  Print, via EW Dunn website @ UBC.

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