Consumerism and Happiness

 Week 8

We in the western world live in consumerist societies. There is a constant barrage of advertising that shows us what we need to have to be successful human beings. How to improve or homes, our comfort, our relationships, our lives overall, there always seems to be a product out there that claims to be able to do this. But if we are improving our lives in this way all the time, does this mean we are getting happier? Are we happier than our grandparents were? Are we happier than the people who live in less developed countries where society is less materialistic? 

The simple answer to the question of  whether or not increasing consumerism results in increasing happiness is no. Remember when you were a child and you begged your parents for some toy you saw somewhere, and you kept begging until you eventually got it. You were so happy with it, but then one week later you couldn’t even remember it, you wanted the next toy that took your fancy. Well it works the same with adults only the toys are much more expensive and a lot of the time purchase is based on appearance rather than entertainment value. The happiness a person experiences after purchasing a product is fleeting. Before long their happiness level returns to what it was before they had purchased it if not even lower because now they either regret wasting their hard-earned cash or they regret not having purchased a more expensive version (more expensive = better).

 Advertising has brainwashed people to the extent that they no longer know what makes them happy. The old adage that the best things in life are free is probably true. Scientists researching the area of consumerism V happiness have concluded that it is things like social interactions that contribute to happiness and not what we are led into believing through advertising. Perhaps this is why we are no happier now than our grandparents were at our age. They lived in a society where social interaction was far more prevalent. The population was more rural based, social gatherings were commonplace, dance halls were big, pubs were busier and more numerous, mass attendance was higher, creameries were plentiful. People met with each other far more frequently. Social gatherings didn’t require organising, they just happened and there was a far greater community spirit as a result. Society was far less consumerist, largely because the average income at the time didn’t permit it.  Unfortunately this sense of community spirit has diminished over the years along with overall happiness to the situation that exists today, people living in housing estates who dont know their neighbours two doors down from them.

Are we happier than people who live in developing countries?  With all our products that supposedly make life so much easier and more comfortable and more enjoyable, the answer is no, well at least according to the happy planet index. This index is a measure of human well-being taking environmental impact into consideration. It was designed to challenge  indices like GDP that do not consider happiness and health, the ultimate aim of most people. . The HPI of a country is a function of  its estimated life satisfaction, life expectancy and ecological footprint. Developed countries such as ireland tend to score poorly on the index largely due to the area of ecological footprint. Ireland is way down the list almost on a par with the war-torn region of Iraq. I would question the accuracy of this index to be honest because it suggests that the happiness of the people of a country is directly dependent on their ecological footprint. I am not so sure that people are really that concious or certainly not concerned about their ecological when it comes to personal comforts. So in my opinion the index is accurate as a measure of sustainability rather than happiness and in order for it to be a true measure of both of these things global values and ideals would have to be completely altered.

The paradox of choice is an interesting concept in my opinion and never has it been so relevant to us. I can’t think of a single product in the supermarket for which there is only one brand present. Of course, it also depends on the size of the retail outlet but as we know, most of the smaller stores in Ireland are struggling to stay afloat such is the competition from the large supermarkets. The theory suggests that too much choice is actually a bad thing as it paralyses the consumer with uncertainty and prevents them from making a purchase. This theory is widely disputed, and lets face it, just because you are faced with 40 or 50 different cereals when doing your shopping doesn’t mean you will become demoralised and not eat breakfast. However I think you can apply the theory to luxury items. You can take the famous exotic jam experiment by the psychologists Mark Lepper and Sheena Lyengar as an example. When researchers set up a display of exotic jams in a gourmet food store allowing people to taste them and giving them a coupon for 1$ off a purchase the results seemed to prove that too much off a choice was counter productive from the manufacturers perspective. With a display of 6 jams people made a purchase in thirty per cent of cases. With a display of 24 jams people tended to taste the same amount as the smaller display but only made a purchase  three per cent of the time. This is the classic case of the kid in the candy store.



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