Advertising and More from the Back-room Boys

I’m thinking about what I already know. And I’m pretty sure all of us in the western world know too.  I’ve spent this morning looking at research into happiness and the consumer society– anyone who has read my previous posts will already be aware that I’ve been thinking about this topic for about 25 years, but still, I like to have a look every now and then at what new research is saying. buy more shit

Thing is, it’s still saying the same things it was saying in the late 80s.  It’s still actually saying the same things we all already know.  We know these things by applying common sense, intuition and looking at the data.  We know.

I like simple answers, I really do, especially when it comes to finding solutions to very complex difficulties.  I well remember liking the concept (although I don’t remember the method) of rationalising an equation.  I might even have the idea wrong and have invented my own definition, but the idea of finding simple answers to life’s problems has great appeal.  For me, it’s about removing all the extraneous stuff (literally and metaphorically), that includes the doubting voices, the lame excuses and most particularly the bad influences and coming up with simple, achievable “protocols” that I believe enhance my life.

You know I like anecdotes, so here’s one.  I was talking recently to someone who has a lot of personal debt and a lot of personal possessions.  She’s depressed about it, and frankly, not on her own.  According to her own assessment her life seems to be dominated by buying things, storing things, paying mounting credit card bills, and feeling guilty.  It’s such a familiar story and really sad.  It’s not surprising that many people who pursue material prosperity often find themselves feeling, if not unhappy, not as happy as they had hoped.

Apparently, according to research, the least happy group of people in the west are aged 46, with men in that group being slightly less happy than women. If you want to read about this in depth, Google “happiness” and you will find thousands of articles and reports about and around this subject.  Interestingly, unlike many other “big” questions in life, almost everyone from psychologists to economists and back again agree that wealth and possessions, above a certain level do not make you happier.  It seems by the time we reach 46 our level of disillusionment has reached its zenith.  We in the west are likely to be at our most economically potent in early middle-age and yet it is at this point that we are unable to avoid the realisation that all our efforts have not led to Nirvana.   In fact, I would go so far as to say that we are fiddling while Rome burns – in other words, no matter how hard we try and ignore the mounting evidence that excess consumerism is literally killing us (our health and that of the environment) – perhaps by this age our inner doubts are too loud to ignore.

Of course there are the climate change deniers who tell us that we are not responsible for environmental damage, but surely the only people who believe the deniers are those who have a more sophisticated personal anti-guilt mechanism than that of the average consumer.  So, not only does buying and having (and throwing away) loads of “stuff” not lead to happy, I think it also makes us feel guilty. But you knew this already.  The young woman with a houseful of clothes and gadgets and expensive handbags knew this already, too.

I really believe in choice.  The trouble is that our consumerist world is built on a “choice” contradiction.  Back in the 50s when consumerism as we know it really took a hold we were led to believe that a free market, full of shiny new things, meant that we would have greater choice, and I can only assume that choice was meant to confer greater happiness on those who had it.  Advertising is a gazillion dollar industry, there to tell us exactly what our “choices” are.  There are banner ads, infomercials, native ads, embedded ads, fliers, hoardings and on and on and on all vying to get our attention.  It is the white noise that is the soundtrack to everyday life.

So we come to something else we all already know.  Advertisers use dissatisfaction to get you to buy things.  Happy people don’t buy as much as dissatisfied ones.  (Google advertising techniques if you want to get the detail – scary).

One voice that is quiet, if not entirely absent, in the clamour of voices shouting “you need me to be happy” and “buy me” and so on is our own voice; the one that says “I don’t need all this stuff to be happy”.  Adverts carry that much authority; enough to close down our own common sense voice.

Of course, back in the day there were a few hippy, brown rice and sandals types who opted out – I’ve sort of done it myself, although I’m more mung bean and flip-flops – and nowadays sustainable living, upcycling and recycling and repurposing is enjoying a revival – but for the most part we, as a society, have started on the road of consumerism and just kept on going, listening, even when we didn’t know we were listening, to the voice of authority that comes from the ads.

So, as I said, I believe in choice.  I want to choose what I buy.  I trust myself to know when I need something and I trust myself to know what it is. I don’t want or need anyone else telling me what’s wrong with my life, whilst applying the emotional thumbscrews.  I choose the authority of my own common sense over the psychological manipulations of advertising.  Filling our heads full of pre-packaged, pre-chosen “wants” and the anxiety of trying to get them, only means we obscure our real needs and goals and desires. I know we can’t avoid seeing ads in a world full to brimming with them, but we can train ourselves to see them as an unwanted intrusion simply designed to make us dissatisfied.  I don’t want to be dissatisfied.

When I see an ad of any kind these days my well trained mental back-room boys pipe up “Doesn’t apply to me”.  I already know what I want. That’s my rationalised equation.

Possessed by your own possessions? GLP on owning all that stuff

Anecdotal evidence just isn’t enough when it comes to getting on my GLP list, but I can’t resist a little warm up before getting to the main event. Image

Our departure from London to Cornwall (as mentioned previously in “Let’s get personal etc.…) may have seemed impulsive even precipitous to a casual observer – one minute we’re living in yuppiedom and the next hotfooting it to Cornwall, doing a downsize, and in the process shedding lots and lots of our possessions.  In retrospect, I realise that my mental “back-room boys” had been making a few observations and coming to some conclusions all on their own.  I do remember thinking that the people who lived in the great big houses in Wimbledon, and for whom we often did renovation work, didn’t seem any happier than the woman who lived in a council flat and came in to do my ironing.  I know very well I’m not going to get any prizes for making that observation.  We’ve all heard “Money can’t buy you happiness” along with “The best things in life are free” countless times, but in our modern lives we are constantly bombarded with the opposite message and, as we know, many of us opt to take the advertisers word for it and ignore the folk wisdom.

So can we put “Have fewer things” on the GLP list?  It would be tempting to let that one slip through without further examination but that would be cheating.  Remember the aforementioned criteria?  Science, common sense, intuition.  I think I could safely say that my intuition does, and did, tell me that curtailing my materialism would be a good idea and so it would seem that the idea passes at least one of the criteria.  That’s not enough to get this on the list though. GLPs do not exist by intuition alone.

So what does the science say?  There have been a great many studies relating to materialism over the years, the conclusions of which have led materialism to become a bit of a dirty word.  There is an interesting study, carried out in 2003 by Profs Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich which concludes that people who spend their money on experiences (I am assuming that means holidays, days out, activities and so on) are more likely to be happy than those who spend their money on material goods.  (For more on this, go to http://www.spring.org.uk/2008/01/experiences-beat-possessions-why.php)

According to Dr Steve Taylor, Senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, in relation to materialism in the developed world “Our appetite for wealth and material goods isn’t driven by hardship, but by our own inner discontent.”  I don’t want to flood this blog with borrowed quotes, but I don’t think I could say this better so I’m quoting Taylor again. “We look to external things to try to alleviate our inner discontent. Materialism certainly can give us a kind of happiness – the temporary thrill of buying something new, and the ego-inflating thrill of owning it afterwards. And we use this kind of happiness to try to override – or compensate for – the fundamental unhappiness inside us.” For more – http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-the-darkness/201203/the-madness-materialism

It is hard to find any research that suggests that owning more things equals more happiness.  Of course, that only covers the science as it relates to the individual.  There is a whole other side to owning less that is perhaps more important still.  Let’s not forget our groaning environment.  Even if you don’t consider yourself an environmentalist, it is very hard to argue that consuming more resources than the earth can replenish is a good idea.  There are thousands of articles, blogs, scientific papers and more that say, in a nutshell, we’re using too much stuff and we need to stop that NOW.  So “Have fewer things” ticks another box.

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As for the common sense arguments for minimising our possessions, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that, left unchecked, the pursuit of happiness through the acquisition of material possessions leads to a never ending cycle of buy, little boost, big come down.  We haven’t even addressed the issue of debt (there’s a GLP lurking, surely?).

I’ve always liked the quote from William Morris “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” and I’ve used that as a yardstick by which I measure the ebb and flow of the material objects about our home and a handy way to live with this particular GLP.

If you think that paring down the things you have in your home and the way you approach buying is difficult, I recommend reading the brilliant blog by Joshua Becker – http://www.becomingminimalist.com/becoming-minimalist-start-here/

So here are my final words for today.  I think we’ve pretty much got the science, the common sense and the intuition covered but there is one other thing that needs to be mentioned here. It’s simple – Clearing all the unnecessary stuff out of my life has truly made me more contented, and happier, and less stressed.  It has left me more space to think not of what I want to buy next, but what I want to do, and even more, what I want to be.  So “putting to one side the ethical and environmental considerations….” it makes for a nicer life. (Oh, and the dusting is easier too).