Is Consumption-Based Happiness Real?

In the first chapter of his book Survival+: Structuring Prosperity for Yourself and the Nation, Charles Hugh Smith provides some intriguing insights about false and real happiness as an introduction to adapting to reality after the financial crisis of 2008.

Since he launched his blog in May 2005, Charles Hugh Smith has warned readers that the unsustainably leveraged global financial system was poised to break down. When the system finally crashed in late 2008, his goal switched to writing a practical guide for not just surviving but prospering – a concept he called Survival+ (Plus). He recommends liberating ourselves from failed models of credit expansion, resource depletion, financial looting and a counterfeit prosperity built entirely on debt.

Below is an excerpt from the end of Chapter 1. Warning: Reading this may make you uncomfortable. I started to see how much advertising and consumption affect our view of reality.

Link: Survival+: Structuring Prosperity for Yourself and the Nation

…happiness has been distilled down by the marketing/advertising complex to a simplistic, superficial formula:

1. You are a consumer

2. A consumer's worth is measured externally by what is owned, worn, displayed, and by what high-status markers are certified by authority (diploma, membership) or the mass media (desirable avatar, fame, etc.)

3. Self-worth results from the acquisition of goods and external markers

4. The internal state of owning scarcity-valued goods and high-status markers is happiness

What is left unspoken is the motivation for this formula:

5. The purpose of this formula is to profitably sell the insecure consumer an unnecessary good or marker which has no connection to self-worth or happiness.

Being social mammals, humans' reproductive success depends to some degree on the level of status, power and material wealth each individual reaches; thus some 8% of the men in a wide swath of Asia carry genes which trace back to the extraordinarily prolific conqueror Genghis Khan.

But to equate high social status with happiness is to confuse two complex issues: higher status may well provide more access to material sources of well-being, but happiness–a state of mind, an understanding, a practice and a process–cannot be reduced to material ownership.

Indeed, numerous studies of the multi-faceted inner sensation we call happiness (which I would term well-being) conclude that the sources of happiness are largely internal and relationship-based rather than material or status-based. Common sense suggests that the security offered by wealth and income boosts well-being, but studies find additional wealth provides diminishing returns. Beyond a certain relatively low level, additional wealth in any form (cash, goods, travel, etc.) offers little improvement in well-being.

Factors often listed as sources of well-being include: Meaningful work, recreation, love, friendship and worship.

We might ask: since shopping did not make the list, how did the pursuit of happiness shrivel to the pursuit of goods and services?

The answer is self-evident: a secure individual identity does not require status or limitless externalities, and thus it does not offer many opportunities to sell unneeded goods and services at a profit.

The first project of the marketing/advertising system is to break down internally produced self-worth and identity and replace it with a permanent insecurity. Convince the target audience that their worth is not internally sourced but totally dependent on externalities, and you create a fundamental insecurity: one can never have enough external goods or markers to establish enduring inner security.

A new fad or status marker will soon be introduced, driving down the value of whatever you own and thus your own "value" will plummet. Gratitude is impossible when there is never enough.

In a peculiar dynamic, the undermining of inner security–that is, of an independently constructed sense of self–by relentless marketing has sparked the emergence of a simulacrum of identity and self-worth: the so-called self-esteem industry.

Such is the perfection of the marketing/advertising system's induced insecurity that the connection between relentless marketing and our culture's pervasive sense of inner worthlessness is never made.

Rather than identify the root cause–the marketing/advertising complex–the self-esteem industry focuses on the symptoms, which it attempts to ameliorate with simplistic "feel-good" slogans ("you can be anything you want!", etc.), a counterproductive reduction in standards and a profoundly distorting goal of eliminating all metrics which might introduce a sense of diminished self-worth.

Just as the marketing complex purposefully confuses happiness with consumption (and indeed, citizen with consumer), so too does the self-esteem industry confuse external metrics and slogans with inner security and well-being.

Even some elements of organized religion have accepted the consumerist framework. In a troubling distortion of the Bible's edict that "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God," some churchgoers have come to confuse wealth acquisition with spiritual attainment.

The Declaration of Independence's "pursuit of happiness"–implicitly a structured process, a journey toward a goal–has been replaced with an illusory and ultimately cruelly misleading end-state: happiness has been reduced from a structured journey (with inevitable setbacks) to the fleeting euphoria of a new purchase/acquisition.

An experience-based understanding of happiness is ontologically structured around the experiences of well-being, warmth and satisfaction offered by true friendship, accomplishment, generosity, romantic and spiritual love and the humility of worship. The acquisition of externalities and superficial markers has no place in this understanding.

In a parallel fashion, an independently constructed sense of self–what we term an individual's identity–grows from humility, self-knowledge and the strength of personal integrity, not from an illusory simulacrum of identity conjured by pronouncements ("I am a member of…") and possessions.

Indeed, all that is truly valuable in one's self and identity can never be taken away or even diminished: integrity, experience, self-knowledge and humility.

Rather than accept the derealizing, dehumanizing reduction to passive consumer, the individual seeking internal and external liberation must renounce the impoverishment of "consumer" and embrace the power of a citizen's independently constructed sense of self.

One key feature of the derealization created by the marketing/advertising system is the erosion of adulthood in favor of a simulacrum of adulthood: permanent adolescence. The very traits needed to negotiate adulthood–an awareness of being tricked/manipulated/cheated, an awareness that life is a series of trade-offs in which one desire is sacrificed to support another deemed more important, the ability to put aside short-term impulses to meet long-term goals, etc.–are derealized in favor of an easily mallable adolescent worldview of spontaneity (that is, impulse), immediate satiation of appetites, escape from everpresent boredom and an obsessively insecure monitoring of one's peers for approved behaviors and status markers.

The adolescent is the perfect marketing target: insecure, focused on gaining approval via external props and cues, easily distracted and bored, powerfully stimulated by "newness" (a key feature of marketing exploitation), drawn to "tribes" of prescribed behavior and identity, and prone to powerful sensory surges triggered by sexual and physical signals (taste, scent, etc.)

The ideal adolescent can barely restrain his/her impulses and emotions and is ever ready to indulge whims and desires. He/she is intensely insecure and doesn't trust his/her own experience but instead seeks the approval of peers or peer tribes via marketable clothing or other externals, suppressing his/her own inner life and experiences lest they conflict with the security offered by conformity. Regardless of the apparent marginality of the tribe he/she seeks to join/belong to, the conformity is equally intense, marketable and unthreatening to the State and the Plutocracy.

The more the "consumer" internalizes these positive cues for adolescence, the more they experience their own alienation as their own fault; given that the very adulthood skills they would need to break free of the trap have been eroded/derided by marketing, they find their inability to feel what they're supposed to be feeling ("happy") only drives them further into complusive, self-destructive behaviors (the primordial "eating a quart of ice cream in the bathtub" experience.)

The very shallowness of this ubiquitously marketed adolescent worldview insures the participating consumer will feel unfulfilled and insecure after the brief high of consumption wears off. Unable to cross the chasm to their own experience, they turn with increasing desperation to marketed escapes and distractions for relief.

When Consumerist Gods Fail

It is important to recall the context of the current Depression: the U.S. has consumed trillions of dollars of goods and commodities in exchange for rapidly depreciating paper. Once credit/debt cannot be created exponentially, then consumption will fall in line with surplus production.

The marketing/advertising complex will still be flooding every nook and cranny of the nation and its media with messages to consume, but if few have surplus money and credit then it follows that few will have the means to buy, regardless of the persuasiveness of the millions of messages.

Thus it is not that the false god of consumerism will be toppled but that it will be abandoned–in many cases, most sorrowfully–by believers and adherents who no longer possess the surplus cash to offer the consumerist god.

The key factor in a consumerist-based identity is that someone profits by selling you an identity, character and sheen of status. The idea that what you wear, drive, tattoo yourself with, load on your iPod, etc. has zero bearing on anything meaningful about who you are and what you value is sacrilege of the highest order.

If "my stuff" is no longer "me," then who and what am I? And indeed, what can I sell you if all you really need to be "yourself" and happy is friends, minimal shelter, unprocessed food, homemade music, a library and an Internet connection and spiritual communion/worship? How much profit can I make selling you a used guitar, a DSL connection and a bag of carrots?

It boils down to this: when you run out of money, you switch religions from Consumerism to one of the good old spiritual standbys.

The known sources of happiness require little to no consumption:

1. health

2. friends

3. free time to pursue interests

4. spiritual communion/worship

5. exercise/sports/play

6. gardening

7. meaningful work (unpaid qualifies)

The experience of well-being has been so derealized that the sense of deprivation experienced at the loss of fine dining, Caribbean cruises, season tickets to the games, etc. is itself suspect.

We might even speculate that the experience of genuine happiness and well-being has largely been forgotten, or perhaps is an unknown sensation to media-numbed "consumers."

Since sustaining the simulacrum of consumerist "happiness" will cause much misery as the consumerist economy slides to oblivion, we might profitably ask if the happier choice wouldn't be to jettison the entire artifice of consumerist "happiness." Upon reflection, it was never real happiness after all; it was only a means to reap immense profits.

The Structure of Happiness

Let us revisit a key concept:

This process of bridging the widening gap between what we experience and what we're being told we should be experiencing via the substitution of simulacrum for authentic structures is central to this entire analysis.

In other words: when we have lost the possibility of indulging the marketing/advertising system's fantasy of endless consumption of needless goods and services, instead of feeling the loss, deprivation and gnawing sense of insecurity/emptiness we are supposed to experience, we might well feel an unexpected but spontaneously genuine relief and liberation that the burdens of constant consumption have been lifted from our sagging shoulders.

It won't be surprising that an analysis which refers so often to the "politics of experience" seeks to illuminate the darkest corner of the consumerist theology: that there is a politics of experience deep within an apparently superficial consumerism.

That is, we do not experience happiness or fulfillment in a vacuum; it is difficult to pursue happiness in a political structure of randomized violence, suppression of free expression, insecure private property rights (a.k.a. theft by other means) and centralized, ubiquitous propaganda that is dominated by an over-reaching State and its Plutocratic overlords.

Thus if we consider the Founding Fathers' phrase "pursuit of happiness" closely, we find not only that it implies a personal pathway of goals, progress, setbacks and discipline rather than a static end-state but also a political environment in which the individual pursuit of happiness is not just possible but encouraged rather than suppressed.

Perhaps the first step to such an understanding of an authentic "pursuit of happiness" is to recognize the consumerist theology of insatiable acquisition (which benefits the State and the Elites alike) as a perverse and destructive simulacrum of genuine happiness.

Our Empire of Consumption — the American Way of Life is Not Negotiable

Bill Moyers interviews US Army Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich, who identifies three major problems facing our democracy: the crises of economy, government and militarism, and calls for a redefinition of the American way of life. Excerpts below.

Link: Bill Moyers interviews US Army Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich.

BILL MOYERS: You call us an "empire of consumption."

ANDREW BACEVICH: I didn’t create that phrase. It’s a phrase drawn from a book by a wonderful historian at Harvard University, Charles Maier, and the point he makes in his very important book is that, if we think of the United States at the apex of American power, which I would say would be the immediate post World War Two period, through the Eisenhower years, into the Kennedy years. We made what the world wanted. They wanted our cars. We exported our television sets, our refrigerators – we were the world’s manufacturing base. He called it an "empire of production."


ANDREW BACEVICH: Sometime around the 1960s there was a tipping point, when the "empire of production" began to become the "empire of consumption." When the cars started to be produced elsewhere, and the television sets, and the socks, and everything else. And what we ended up with was the American people becoming consumers rather than producers.

BILL MOYERS: And you say this has produced a condition of profound dependency, to the extent, and I’m quoting you, "Americans are no longer masters of their own fate."

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, they’re not. I mean, the current debt to the Chinese government grows day by day. Why? Well, because of the negative trade balance. Our negative trade balance with the world is something in the order of $800 billion per year. That’s $800 billion of stuff that we buy, so that we can consume, that is $800 billion greater than the amount of stuff that we sell to them. That’s a big number. I mean, it’s a big number even relative to the size of our economy.

BILL MOYERS: And you use this metaphor that is intriguing. American policy makers, quote, "have been engaged in a de facto Ponzi scheme, intended to extend indefinitely, the American line of credit." What’s going on that resembles a Ponzi scheme?

ANDREW BACEVICH: This continuing tendency to borrow and to assume that the bills are never going to come due. I testified before a House committee six weeks ago now, on the future of U.S grand strategy. I was struck by the questions coming from members that showed an awareness, a sensitivity, and a deep concern, about some of the issues that I tried to raise in the book.

"How are we gonna pay the bills? How are we gonna pay for the commitment of entitlements that is going to increase year by year for the next couple of decades, especially as baby boomers retire?" Nobody has answers to those questions. So, I was pleased that these members of Congress understood the problem. I was absolutely taken aback when they said, "Professor, what can we do about this?" And their candid admission that they didn’t have any answers, that they were perplexed, that this problem of learning to live within our means seemed to have no politically plausible solution.

BILL MOYERS: You say in here that the tipping point between wanting more than we were willing to pay for began in the Johnson Administration. "We can fix the tipping point with precision," you write. "It occurred between 1965, when President Lyndon Baines Johnson ordered U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam, and 1973, when President Richard Nixon finally ended direct U.S. involvement in that war." Why do you see that period so crucial?

ANDREW BACEVICH: When President Johnson became President, our trade balance was in the black. By the time we get to the Nixon era, it’s in the red. And it stays in the red down to the present. Matter of fact, the trade imbalance becomes essentially larger year by year.

So, I think that it is the ’60s, generally, the Vietnam period, slightly more specifically, was the moment when we began to lose control of our economic fate. And most disturbingly, we’re still really in denial. We still haven’t recognized that.

BILL MOYERS: Now you go on to say that there was another fateful period between July 1979 and March of 1983. You describe it, in fact, as a pivot of contemporary American history. That includes Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, right?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I would be one of the first to confess that – I think that we have misunderstood and underestimated President Carter. He was the one President of our time who recognized, I think, the challenges awaiting us if we refused to get our house in order.

BILL MOYERS: You’re the only author I have read, since I read Jimmy Carter, who gives so much time to the President’s speech on July 15th, 1979. Why does that speech speak to you so strongly?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, this is the so-called Malaise Speech, even though he never used the word "malaise" in the text to the address. It’s a very powerful speech, I think, because President Carter says in that speech, oil, our dependence on oil, poses a looming threat to the country. If we act now, we may be able to fix this problem. If we don’t act now, we’re headed down a path in which not only will we become increasingly dependent upon foreign oil, but we will have opted for a false model of freedom. A freedom of materialism, a freedom of self-indulgence, a freedom of collective recklessness. And what the President was saying at the time was, we need to think about what we mean by freedom. We need to choose a definition of freedom which is anchored in truth, and the way to manifest that choice, is by addressing our energy problem.

He had a profound understanding of the dilemma facing the country in the post Vietnam period. And of course, he was completely hooted, derided, disregarded.

BILL MOYERS: And he lost the election. You in fact say-


BILL MOYERS: -this speech killed any chance he had of winning reelection. Why? Because the American people didn’t want to settle for less?

ANDREW BACEVICH: They absolutely did not. And indeed, the election of 1980 was the great expression of that, because in 1980, we have a candidate, perhaps the most skillful politician of our time, Ronald Reagan, who says that, "Doom-sayers, gloom-sayers, don’t listen to them. The country’s best days are ahead of us."

BILL MOYERS: Morning in America.

ANDREW BACEVICH: It’s Morning in America. And you don’t have to sacrifice, you can have more, all we need to do is get government out of the way, and drill more holes for oil, because the President led us to believe the supply of oil was infinite.

BILL MOYERS: You describe Ronald Reagan as the "modern prophet of profligacy. The politician who gave moral sanction to the empire of consumption."

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, to understand the truth about President Reagan, is to understand why so much of what we imagined to be our politics is misleading and false. He was the guy who came in and said we need to shrink the size of government. Government didn’t shrink during the Reagan era, it grew.

He came in and he said we need to reduce the level of federal spending. He didn’t reduce it, it went through the roof, and the budget deficits for his time were the greatest they had been since World War Two.

BILL MOYERS: And do you remember that it was his successor, his Vice President, the first President Bush who said in 1992, the American way of life is not negotiable.

ANDREW BACEVICH: And all presidents, again, this is not a Republican thing, or a Democratic thing, all presidents, all administrations are committed to that proposition. Now, I would say, that probably, 90 percent of the American people today would concur. The American way of life is not up for negotiation.

What I would invite them to consider is that, if you want to preserve that which you value most in the American way of life, and of course you need to ask yourself, what is it you value most. That if you want to preserve that which you value most in the American way of life, then we need to change the American way of life. We need to modify that which may be peripheral, in order to preserve that which is at the center of what we value.

via Barry Ritholtz