Henry David Thoreau, one of my favorite authors, once said “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after.” (Tweet this.)
I think this is an excellent reflection of the consumerism driven cycle most people get trapped in and then spend their entire lives fulfilling. Consumerism dominates modern life, at least here in the U.S. but I would wager throughout the developed world as well.
It’s a pervasive thing that really saturates our culture. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except it almost always leads to an artificial and transient state of happiness that leaves people unfulfilled. In other words it tends to make life suck.
So how do we break out of the consumerist cycle?
The First World’s Drug of Choice
To understand how best to escape the cycle it’s important to first have an idea of how it works and why it’s so heinous in the first place.
The consumerist cycle primarily operates by creating a deep sense of loss that leads to a sense of need. When you see someone with something new and cool that seems to make them happy you want to be happy too. Not also having this item that’s making the other person happy makes you feel like you’re missing out which creates a strong internal sense of loss.
Loss, as a motivating factor, is much more powerful to humans than a sense of potential gain. Studies have shown that people who have to do something or lose $5 are much more likely to do it than people who have to do something to earn $5. This sense of loss about missing out on the feeling of having this thing is a powerful motivator that strongly encourages you to buy it.
What does that lead to though? As soon as the next thing comes around that sense of loss returns – possibly stronger if reinforced by being rewarded with a shiny new thing last time it came around.
If you look around at the kind of life most people fall into all of their work tends to amount to fulfilling the next step in that cycle. You work to buy a house, a car, a new phone and then once you have them you work more to get a bigger house, a newer car or a better phone.
Then what? The same thing again.
Over and over you repeat this cycle and eventually you die. If you were successful in the consumerist cycle you leave behind a lot of crap for your kids, if you weren’t successful you don’t.
Do You Really Want Fish?
You’re fishing, like Thoreau said, but have you ever actually asked yourself if it’s fish you want?
When you spend your whole day toiling away in a job you may or may not enjoy casting your nets so can have more money, a better TV, or whatever other thing to cram into the nagging sense of lack instilled in you by advertising and society in general is that really what you want?
Some people might say yes and, while I suspect you’re deluded and just haven’t fully considered the alternative, if you want to follow the same cycle of purchasing new things only to work hard the following year to purchase more of the same things then that’s your choice.
Personally, I find that type of life void of any kind of meaning. I find that type of a life terrifying. To think of going to my grave having done nothing but collect successively newer things is repugnant to me in its wastefulness.
Worst in my opinion is it’s difficult to pull people out of this consumerist cycle because in addition to being socially pervasive it’s a really effective psychological drug. Now I’m not insane enough to think this is some kind of conspiracy or anything – it’s just a reflection of a basic human psychological weakness that’s turned out to be awfully profitable. Regardless that makes it all the more difficult to snap people out of it.
Suggestions for a Life Worth Living
I would feel slightly hypocritical denigrating a particular approach at finding happiness in life through possessions as being followed blindly then declaring that the approach to life I espouse is the true way and you should take my word for it.
So I’m not going to tell you my way is best. It works for me and I do intend to share my own suggestions, but I want you sit down and think for yourself about what you really want in life.
At its root one of the reasons the consumerist cycle is so awful is that its accepted blindly when its pushed onto us by society. We’re all brought up being told we need to fish. We’re inundated by media and a societal model that whispers incessantly in our ears that we would be happier if only we had this fish or that fish and so we start fishing, never asking ourselves if we decided we wanted fish or if it was decided for us. WE wind up press ganged into pescetarianism.
So ask yourself if it’s what you really want and, if it isn’t, do something about it.
When I realized that I had the choice I decided that a life spent devoted to material things was not something that brought me real happiness. (Tweet this.)
I feel that overall the worth of a person is tied most strongly not to what they have, or even what they are, but what they can do and have done. Additionally I’ve learned that experiences bring me much more consistent, lasting and fulfilling happiness than things.
That’s led me to pursue experiences, skills and relationships over things. Finally getting that new super high tech TV is something that, as soon as the next, better TV comes out, I will completely forget about. Getting to have meaningful conversations with someone in another country because I took the time to learn to speak a new language is something that will stick with me forever.
Small Steps to Stop Fishing
So what are some things you can do to break out of the cycle?
Give Minimalism a Try – Minimalism doesn’t mean getting rid of everything and living like a hermit. It just means closely examining all the things you have and deciding whether they’re genuinely a benefit or a burden. If you want an easy but effective first step, get rid of your TV. We did a while back and I’m extremely happy about it.
Invest in Skills and Experiences – A good rule is to always ask, in making this purchase am I investing money in myself or in something else? Am I going to improve personally or develop as a person having done this? It’s not to say every single thing you do has to be focused on personal development, but making it a priority will go a long way. Take a class, practice a new skill, try out a brand new experience, invest in something you’ll actually remember in ten years.
Go Travel – Travel is one of the easiest ways to force yourself to go have new experiences, meet new people and expose yourself to new ideas. Don’t make your trip about souvenirs or you run the risk of kind of missing the whole point. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to be wealthy to travel either. Travelling cheap can be easy and it often leads to more experiences, you just have to be creative.
The most important thing is to constantly check up on yourself to ensure you’re doing what you genuinely want to be doing and aren’t pursuing a goal that you unconsciously assimilated from your environment, friends or family.
Do you have any suggestions for escaping the cycle of consumerism? Do you think I’m completely wrong on the whole thing and consumerism isn’t a big deal? Leave a comment!