Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.
--Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
It's normal for human beings to search for meaning in their lives. Otherwise... what's the point? Unless we actively seek out real meaning--genuine, existential value--there is no point.
Unfortunately, consumer culture has handed us an easy alternative to the challenge of searching for true meaning: buying things. You can purchase meaning now. It's not the same, but it's close enough to fool many of us.
What, then, are examples of purchased pseudo-meaning?
* Meals at exclusive or high-status restaurants
* Branded merchandise
* Status-driven pastimes or activities
* Exotic-sounding vacations
* Relentlessly seeking more money or more income
* Purchases that signal our success, good taste, or wealth.
Okay. Intellectually, we all know (well, most of us know) that these things do not, and cannot, bring lasting meaning to our lives. But here's where the problem lies: When we buy stuff and experiences like the things above, it produces a temporary illusion of meaning and value, and it can be deceivingly easy to mistake that illusion for the real thing.
Another problem lies with the ostensibility of each of the psuedovalues above: each gives us overt ways to advertise our status, originality, importance, wealth, success… to the point where we can construct a plausible and believable facade of living a meaningful life just by filling our lives with things from this list. No one will know the difference, and you’ll "be seen" as the kind of person who (uh, ostensibly) lives a rich, meaningful life.
This would be lovely, if you were more interested in being seen as living a meaningful life than actually living a meaningful life. Can you spot the difference between the two? Many people can't, leaving them endlessly chasing items from the list above. They may think they're pursuing happiness, but all they'll end up with is more stuff. And usually more debt.
Worst of all, since consumerism-as-meaning is most peoples' default choice, it can be awfully lonely to avoid consumerism in order to seek out real meaning. Hey, if you're not out there buying stuff with everybody else, it's easy to feel uneasy. As if you're doing it all wrong somehow.
I'm not sure of much, but I'm certain that the point to life isn't to die next to a large pile of branded consumer goods. Which takes us to one of the key existential challenges of living in the modern world: You must discern true meaning from pseudo-meaning. Forget all the overpriced, meaningless crap on the list above. Instead, I'd make the case that meaning comes from activities like the following:
* Helping someone
* Teaching someone something
* Private learning and expertise-building
* Cultivating a mindset of "enough"
* Sharing a simple meal or experience with a friend, partner or family member
* Rejecting consumerism-based pursuits in all forms.
A final thought: It's an interesting coincidence that all of the things on this list are either free or close to it.
Readers, what would you add? Do you struggle with the consumerism of your peers, friends, colleagues or family? What solutions have worked for you? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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