Materialism: Trapped in a Money Pit
by Michael Corthell
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More money, more problems? It might just be true. Americans today, compared to 55 years ago, own twice as many cars and eat out twice as much per person, but we don’t seem to be any happier because of it. Rather than rising levels of well-being, we’ve seen mounting credit card debt and increasing numbers of self-storage facilities to house the things we compulsively buy.
Trapped in a Money Pit
In the developed world, at least and for the most part, true basics like shelter and food require only part of an average income. An important slice of consumption is therefore directed at things we don’t absolutely require.
Some of the time at least, if we properly reflect on our experiences, this discretionary expenditure doesn’t quite bring us the satisfaction we were hoping for. The more spiritual voices among us will argue that the reason is obvious: the whole idea of improving our lives via something one can purchase is fundamentally misguided.
But there’s another possible explanation: that material things can contribute to satisfaction only if we understand ourselves pretty well. Spending successfully is something we need to learn. We need to undergo a process of Consumer Education, simply defined as the art of better understanding the links between what we spend and how we feel.
We’re imperfect consumers because of a quite basic challenge of the human condition: we’re not very skilled at making ourselves happy. It’s a tragic irony that the whole point of consumerism is to please us but that on so many Sunday afternoons, on the way back from a film or a mall, the train station or airport, we may privately acknowledge that we have once again not quite been able to lay our hands on the nerve centers of our own pleasure.
Consumption is a point at which modern life dramatically intersects with an age-old issue: the origins of human flourishing. In truth, consumer education is a branch of philosophy, a study of how we can educate ourselves as to the true natures, and constituent features of a good life. The challenge of becoming the authors of our own recipe books of pleasure still lies before us.