Consumerism and Modern Pseudovalues: Some Thoughts

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 pseudovalues 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 appearing to live a meaningful life was more important to you 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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Emmy said...

My 10yo son has created a hyperfocus on expensive cars lately, so this article hits home. I wish you could break this down into age-appropriate language for me!

chacha1 said...

This is kind of a tough one. I wouldn't say I "struggle" with my consumerism, but ...
while I am actively pursuing Net Loss of Stuff, I have not stopped buying new things altogether.

And while my social activities revolve more around time spent together at home than around, say, going out to fancy restaurants or the opera, they still cost money.

I think at my stage of life - in a very high cost-of-living area, employed full-time in a professional office, trying to put together enough financial resources that we can afford to live in retirement someday - I am almost of necessity very money-focused.

I would not say that money, per se, has meaning. It's a necessary tool. The things that are important and have meaning to me do cost money, as does everything else in life. I don't give unless my bases are covered first.

I am not a fan of the notion of living on nothing just to make a point, and I don't believe in making myself feel bad for wanting a good new pair of shoes once in a while.

All that said, I drive a 19-yr-old car and would rather stay home than spend a weekend in Vegas. So there's that. :-)

Jen said...

Yes, I recognise this, but thankfully as past memories! Happy to say 'I believe' I've broken out of that way of thinking :)

Daniel said...

Happy to see these comments so far.

Emmy, since I don't have kids I don't really know what to suggest to you, but perhaps some other readers who have faced your situation may have some advice.

All I can say is, I didn't really wrap my mind fully around these ideas until well into my adult years. It's pretty likely your son is well ahead of where I was at age 10!


Owlhaven said...

Emmy, your 10yo sounds like my 9yo at the moment. We've talked about how long it might take to earn money for one of those spendy cars, and what a family might have to give up on while the parents work for such things--- games, family time, trips together, etc. I also like to think through small financial decisions out loud in front of our kids-- kinda share pros and cons, etc. I think conversations like these have to happen now and then over years to make an impact. I also like to listen to Dave Ramsey on the radio when my kids are around, so they can hear about the troubles of folks who over-extend themselves. Hoping all the little bits of input come together later when she's old enough to make decisions of her own.
Mary, momma to 10

Janet C said...

I admit that my house has many beautiful "things" - but I justify it by reminding myself that most were bought at flea markets, garage sales, or thrift stores for a fraction of their worth. However, I confess that if friends were to come over I am not likely to admit how little I spent...

Which brings me to the thing I most struggle with: my husband and I downsized our life after his business struggled during the recession. It's much better now but we are still living in a 1000 ft. square house (admittedly with a 0.4 acre lot; the better to grow vegetables on:-) I love our little house, and I love the (less than 500 dollar) mortgage payment even more...but sometimes I can't help but feel like explanations are in order when guests come from a visit. After all, most folks in my income/social status bracket live in larger homes, and they certainly don't live in working class neighborhoods literally on the wrong side of the tracks. I find myself sometimes making excuses: telling the story about how we originally bought the house as an investment/rental property, and then moved into it as we were renovating...and decided not to move out. All that is true, but its not the real story: the real story is that its the money, stupid. I own another much larger home in a much nicer neighborhood in the same city, but I would rather let my tenants live there and pay the rent and mow the large lawn. (Our present house has no lawn, just a nice deck we built, some xeroscape in front, and a very large vegetable garden/orchard-to-be out back). I am trying to get to a place where I don't find myself telling the apologetic story of how we ended up here to folks. There is nothing wrong with where I live: I have neighbors I know and trust, a house just perfect for two. and some disposable income that I can use for the important things in life (such as visiting my son who lives across the Pacific). When I board that plane to Tokyo in a couple of weeks I will try to remember that frugality and a little elbow grease got me there. And this weekend when I volunteer for a RAM medical outreach event I will walk the three blocks to the high school where it is being held and not be tempted to drive just so the other volunteers don't learn that I live in the same lower-income neighborhood the event is targeting.....

Thank you for the reminders on what's important. We all need that from time to time.

Anonymous said...

Do you struggle with the consumerism of your peers, friends, colleagues or family?

Would you please explain what you mean by this question? I understand that people often struggle with their own consumerism, but how does one "struggle" with the consumerism of others? Thanks

Daniel said...

I'm just referring to the idea that we often compare our standard of living not by what is sufficient for our needs on an absolute basis, but on a (highly) relative basis.

One example of struggling with the consumerism of your peers, then, would be if you compared yourself negatively to your social circle because your peers drove nicer cars, wore nicer clothes, had bigger homes, etc.


Rebecca said...

Finding like-minded peers means that I don't have to worry so much about comparisons with them. We get together and drink home brew around a fire pit, or take bike rides around lakes together. And I'm so much happier and relaxed than I would be at happy hour on a rooftop patio downtown, where I'd have to put on my grown-up shoes. Or makeup, eek!