Despite the accessibility to the abundance of things that can assure a healthy, fulfilled and happy life, growing epidemics of depression, stress and anxiety prevail in the modern developed world and are extending beyond it. Chapter 2 in the Handbook of Sustainability Literacy, Optimization: the art of personal sufficiency, proposes that: a central cause of this phenomenon is a society wide promotion of pursuing and acquiring more and more stuff as a recipe to happiness.
A look at the concepts explored by the Happy Planet Index can reveal that indeed pursuing and consuming more stuff is not relationally conducive to more and continuous happiness, but quite the opposite, with an added effect of an overshooting ecological footprint and an implicit nearing global ecological collapse. The same correlation between consumerism and unhappiness (and its other health related problems - like obesity, diabetes and cancer) is explored in peer-reviewed articles presented by the American Psychological Association, Association for Psychological Science, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and in one very enlightening video The Story of Stuff, among others.
Not to long ago, people understood the principles of diminishing returns and negatives of excessive consumption. “Enough” was seen as relevant, practical, elegant, and sustainable by the grandpas and grandmas of the current modern developed world. Ancient philosophers promoted the same thinking paradigm:
The path to contentment lies between the twin evils of having too much and too little - Aristotle
He who knows he has enough is rich - Tao Te Ching
Today, somehow, contentment and richness in life are sought through consumption of more and more (things). John Naish, the author of the refreshing book Enough: breaking free from the world of excess, suggests that the consumerist behavior that set our individual and collective existence on an unsustainable path is fed by a certain economic thought best represented by a quote of the 1950’s American marketing guru Victor Lebow:
Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate - Victor Lebow
People’s predilection to venerate and sacrifice for this God of an economy, adhering to this cult of consumerism, is maintained by a powerful priestly marketing culture that is becoming more and more “effective at targeting our subconscious brain” and driving us to uninteligent aspirations to the “cult of celebrity”, emulation of success, and “as we perceive” social acceptance and happiness.
Awareness of the negative effects of this marketing-socio-economic system on our fragile minds, bodies, society at large and planetary environment is growing. Ideas such as the need for zero-growth-economy are known, but governments and economies are still structured to rely on “ever increasing consumption” and not be able to “curb the advertisers’ activities”.
The solutions come from the grassroots, with individuals learning and teaching:
- the practice of the “lost art of sufficiency”;
- the recognition of the prevailing marketing tricks and the resistance to the temptations they promote;
- the principles of enough; and
- the ways to make time and space for other things in life that are more satisfying, healthy and conducive to happiness.
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