It won’t make you happy: questioning consumerism

By Luke Van Der Male | 10/22/14 11:19pm

While some may have you believe that the existence of a single brand of $90 boots dominating the fashion landscape at a university suggests nothing about the social climate there, I would suggest that perhaps the ways we display our wealth as a society matters.

When people dress similarly, they associate themselves as a group. No one thinks that dressing in all black and wearing a metric ton of steel in and around your body is a neutral statement. As a statement, this kind of dress is harmless, but what if the most attractive, active and wealthy people around all dressed this way, and it happened to be quite expensive?

If there is economic inequality then there is an upper class, and they often make class statements in terms of fashion, possessions and habits. And with these things comes consumerism, the implicit assumption that the consumption of goods will make you happy. Unfortunately, the effects of consumerism aren’t confined to its believers.

I have often heard of the necessity of getting a good job and making enough money to “pay the bills.” I have not heard, however, why it is that this should be the focus of an education, much less a life.

The conflation of wealth and having a reason to live is hugely misleading: rich people rarely stop working on that which realized their riches, retired people grow bored in mere months and lottery winners kill themselves. Hamlet was a prince, after all.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton suggest that humans have an amazing capacity to get used to wealth. So, just like getting used to the hot water in the shower and needing to turn it up, you’ll never have enough. It is true that a certain amount of money makes it easier to be happy. Kahneman and Deaton estimate that subjective assessments of life satisfaction increase with wealth until about a $75,000 annual income.

That said, not all the ways one can spend money were created equal. Buying experiences like vacations and pillow forts instead of goods avoids the dangers of adaptation to wealth. This is because these things become memories rather than privileges to which we are accustomed. It also is less apt to make your wealth into a class statement. Although the ramparts of my pillow fortress are exclusive, the existence of it within my memory is not.

The call to “check your privilege” has become something of an Orwellian cliché, but it couldn’t be more applicable here. It’s disgusting to unnecessarily wear wealth on one’s sleeve and glorify the stamp-collection that is luxury. I cannot tell you exactly what things make you a bourgeois discriminator and which things are simple fun because the nature of class is fluid. I can, however, tell you that the participation in consumption for consumption’s sake is a visible practice at this and every other university, and one that cannot be justified by ascribing individuality to class conformity.

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