How many times have you sat in a cafe, waiting for a friend, and found yourself unable to look away from your phone? You just had to sip your coffee and smoke a cigarette? Or flip through a magazine for fear of looking at a loose end?
We are taught that being a good citizen is to consume. Be it drink, food or rolling news we are constantly taking something in. Our minds gobbling stimuli from all sides. A crutch which we use to hobble through our days.
So much so that we find ourselves uncomfortable doing nothing. A recent study in Science found that some people chose mild electric shocks over spending 15 minutes in a room alone. We are only happy with nothing when it is repackaged and we’re paying for it. Meditation classes are hip because they give it a purpose. Suddenly sitting still becomes an activity, with goals, techniques and structure. An irony not lost on the critics of Suzuki, Watts and others.
More than this however, in the zeitgeist's oversimplified and politicized imagination, to be still is to be suspect. A failed citizen. The homeless man sits on the sidewalk doing nothing. The benefits claimant lays on his sofa, flaccid and worthless. Yet the CEO, our suited model of success, rushes around, engrossed in emails, documents and expense account lunches. Never mind if these archetypes are actually representative of reality.
Busyness has social cachet. So we chase it. Of course we try to look busy in front of the boss but nowadays in front of our friends too. We give off an air that the world can’t wait. Sandwiching 30 minute lunches between a spin class and shopping trip. As if a full schedule is what we aspire to, rather than a schedule full of things that make us happy.
And this culture filters right down to those moments on the subway, when you find yourself flicking through your phone for no reason. Or compulsively checking your emails in pursuit of constant stimulation. Fearing otherwise your life might fall apart.
Yet how could we not be seduced? We have neo-liberals whispering in one ear that the individual is king and must build a solid identity. Then the ad men in the other telling us tales of gadgets and three piece suites, twinkling goods through which we can express ourselves. Through which we can be who we want to be. Consumption is cool, they chorus.
In the past people, bought things because they needed them. A chair to sit on or a car to drive. Goods came off production lines in standard colors, shapes and sizes. They were replaced when they didn’t work any more.
Think about how Ford used to work: You can have it in any color as long as its black. Nowadays this would be unthinkable, you choose from hundreds of different phone models, each of them in a different color and then you can buy innumerate add-ons/cases/covers to make them your own. This didn't used to be the case. It all came about with the application of Freudian psychology to marketing and branding, with companies realizing they shouldn't only appeal to utility, but peoples instinctual, emotional reactions and their inner need to express themselves. This all coincided with the rise of self help movements, individualism in politics, and the first generation that saw themselves as individual consumers rather than social groups. “The Century of the Self” by Adam Curtis is as a fantastic primer on this.
Now we buy to extend our personalities and express of ourselves. Everything from your car to your clothes and even where you shop are lifestyle choices. Why buy one brand of beer over another? Why Coke rather than Pepsi? Not because the products are vastly different, but because you are a democrat or a republican. A hipster or a jock.
Goods also infer social status. We love the expensive and the new. The quality of a high-fashion handbag is never proportional to its expense. Yet they fly off the shelves, desirable because they are expensive. The latest iPhone spawns round the block queues despite it being almost identical to the last.
We sacrifice so much for consumption -- most obviously when Washington spends more on consumption-inducing tax breaks than Medicare or Social Security. But even as individuals, every day, we spend the majority of our time either consuming or working hard so we have the means to consume more.
Yet we’ve been tricked. Consumption doesn’t even make us happy. Study after study show that above a relatively modest income of $37,000 there is little correlation between wealth and happiness. Any gains are negated by the stress of work, a lack of leisure time and the embrace of a culture of things rather than people.
And the little time we do have is spent badly. We read the news and get depressed. Lose hours to the internet and come out in a haze. Watch too much television and question why we aren’t as beautiful, successful or lucky. Binging on screens taking an easy hit of short lived satisfaction. An addict inside each of us feeding on immediate pleasure.
Bronnie Ware wrote an illuminating book titled "The Top Five Regrets of The Dying." Four of them are as follows:
- I wish I’d spent less time working.
- I wish I’d kept in touch with more of my friends.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express myself.
- I wish I’d not lived the life that was expected of me.
Or in short: I wish I hadn’t consumed so much.
Because that is why we work. To consume more. It is why we fall out of touch with friends, because we spend more than third of our waking lives working. And it is why we don’t express ourselves, because we lack energy and spend our leisure time consuming. Living a half life, ignoring all that can’t be packaged up and sold.
Imagine how much happier we’d be if we had the energy to pick up a pen or a paintbrush. If just occasionally we created something. If we didn’t substitute genuine self expression for personalized consumer goods.
Politicians look down on this whole cycle and smile. Once the opiate was religion; now it's gadgets and the 24 hour news cycle. Your brain is besieged by celebrity gossip, text messages and Fruit Ninja. You are tired from slogging away at work. Distracted by light entertainment, piped in through speaker and screen. In such a climate how can we meditate on the injustices of the political or economic hierarchy? How can we find the space for sustained, gradual social change?
One of the saddest offshoots of this culture is how we conduct friendships. Socialising in modern times implies spending. It is the norm to go for coffee, have a drink or go to a concert. To invite somebody who isn’t close around to your house seems almost seedy. The conversation, one of life’s most delightful freebies, is packaged up and sold back to you.
Our happiness depends on things changing. On regaining our ability to be without always having to do. But so does our survival. Oil is a finite resource. In the minds of most it fuels cars and aeroplanes. But it also makes makes plastics and ships goods around the world. It is a base component in nearly every fertiliser our crops and soils have become dependent on. There are seven gallons of the stuff in every car tire.
This culture of consumption, passed down from on high, spells destruction for our well being and our environment. Growth is neither good nor infinite. Nor does it make us happy.
Yet I sit here surrounded by my chosen crutches. A cigarette burning away and a half finished cup of coffee. The radio drifting in from the other room. We are all caught up in consumption. Fighting against a lifetime of conditioning is difficult. But realizing we are trapped is at least the first, tentative step towards something better.