Happiness Catch-22: Wanting More Makes Us Unhappy

Social IssuesCulture

  • Author Nick Kossovan
  • Published June 13, 2022
  • Word count 910

From 2001 to 2004, I worked/lived in India. I saw firsthand heartbreaking poverty. My takeaway from my experience in India is that North Americans have no real problems, just 1st world problems. Our financial stress, feeling unsuccessful, constantly seeking fulfillment is caused by marketing propaganda's influences and overabundance. It's no secret that marketers and advertisers keep us wanting more and more. This manufactured insatiable appetite to consume has eroded our ability to have any gratitude for all we have compared to most of the world. Canadians' lack of gratitude for living a 1st world lifestyle is truly appalling!

In 2018 almost half the world lived on less than $5.50 a day. According to the World Bank, 3.4 billion people struggle to meet basic needs.

Western society, especially North America, measures happiness and success by comparing oneself with others. For the most part, how we feel about our income, car, and house are moulded by our family, friends, colleagues, neighbours' income, car, and house. It's a national pastime to worry about relative status, which is why much of our consumerism revolves around trying to "look rich."

Marketing propaganda has made us believe we're entitled to a certain lifestyle. If you're not living the lifestyle you're supposedly entitled to, we're a failure. Not long ago, when I'd see somebody wearing a $5,000 watch, for example, I'd look at my $200 watch and think, "Maybe I'm doing something wrong."

Buying a Breitling® watch, an Audi S6 Sedan or a Lardini single-breasted blazer may make you feel happier. Like with my aforementioned watch example, it has a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses status effect. However, the happiness doesn't last long, since eventually "the Jones" will either buy what you bought, or something regarded as "better." This makes us want to buy more stuff to one-up "the Jones." Let's be honest; we all want to be "the Jones."

When the latest iPhone comes out, the lineup at Apple stores are people who have a functioning iPhone in their pocket, wanting to be "the Jones." (FYI, we're on iPhone13, the first iPhone came out on June 29, 2007.)

Moreover, we tend to compare ourselves to those who appear wealthier than us, an illusion easy to create, given the ease with which credit can be acquired today, coupled with social media. Thorstein Veblen, the 20th-century economist who coined "conspicuous consumption" and "invidious comparisons," highlighted how people use luxury goods to display their social status, which in 2022 social media amplifies. As early as 1899, Veblen observed that people lived on treadmills of wealth accumulation, incessantly competing with others but not increasing their own well-being. Sounds familiar?

Wanting, and therefore constantly seeking, recognition (READ: validation) is the biggest driver of human behaviour, which explains social media's addictive quality. (Social Media = "Look at me!") You giving a $2,000 cheque to your favourite charity receives no social applause. However, post a selfie of yourself wearing a $1,500 COBB leather jacket on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter—you'll receive likes, comments, and ego-stroking. You'll temporarily be happy, but once the euphoria wears off, you'll want to buy more recognition. When it comes to ever-changing fashion, marketing propaganda tells you that your clothes will give you the recognition you crave more than your character or actions.

Unfortunately, our society has gotten to the point where we feel recognition, respect, and love are more likely to come from owning a 65-inch flat-screen TV or driving a Tesla Model S than from doing good deeds or just being a good person.

As social animals, status is naturally important to us. We're anxious to stand out from the crowd—to tower over our peers, gain their respect, and "hopefully" their love, which we believe will make us happy and fulfilled.

For hundreds of years, we've inherently known that consumption doesn't lead to happiness. Every religion and philosophical tradition evangelizes this concept. Karl Marx's most important insight was his theory of alienation, which he defined as the sense of estrangement from the self that comes from being part of a materialistic society, in which we are cogs in a vast market-based machine.

You don't need to be religious (or a Marxist) to see how absurd some of the claims our hyper-consumerist society makes. We're promised happiness with the next pay raise, the next new gadget—even the next sip of soda. In his book The Happiness Fantasy, Carl Cederström, a Swedish business professor, argues that companies and advertisers have promised satisfaction. Instead, they have led people into a joyless production and consumption rat race. As a result, though the material comforts of life have undeniably increased for Canadians, these "things" don't give our life meaning.

We give our life meaning when we:

• give more than we take

• help someone in distress

• share

• empathize

• develop meaningful relationships we can count on

• are a good son, daughter, or friend

• serve others

You could easily interpret this article as a lamentation against modern life and capitalism. For the record, I'm a very public proponent of democratic capitalism with a modern welfare state. My attempt here is to appeal to everyone to remember that material prosperity has both benefits and costs. The costs come when we allow our hunger for the trappings of prosperity to blind us from the timeless sources of true human happiness: faith, family, friendship, and work in which we earn our respective definition of success and serving others. These have always been, and will always be, the things that deliver the happiness I see so many trying to obtain through their consumerism.

Nick Kossovan, a self-described connoisseur of human psychology, writes about what's on his mind from Toronto. You can follow Nick on Twitter and Instagram @NKossovan

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