Consumption is neither inherently good nor bad. Yet, consumption has profound effects on well-being. So, being a responsible consumer means that you understand the paradoxical effects of consumption and, paraphrasing psychologist Barry Schwartz, you strive to do the right things in the right way. But to do the right things in the right way, you need to understand how consumption can both undermine and promote your well-being.
Ben, who I interviewed at his home Williamsburg, Virginia, grew up in a wealthy and very-well known family in the southeast. Now in his mid-40s, Ben is self-employed as a boat builder and yoga trainer. As a child, Ben remembers watching his grandfather’s spending and the effect it had.
“But my grandfather pursued items—things—fairly obsessively. And he had the money to do that. Just on a whim he could buy whatever he wanted. And he did. And he was miserable. He was a really unhappy person. So he basically got a brand-new car every year and he’d trade in his old one. Usually, it was an expensive car. But he was never satisfied with what he had. He was always pretty critical of the items that he ended up with. Nothing was ever enough. Nothing ever fit and could be like ‘oh that’s exactly what I needed.’”
Yet, despite that early experience, Ben found himself in early adulthood running on the same hedonic treadmill – a term that psychologists use to refer to our tendency to adapt quickly to the initial pleasure of acquiring something and the lingering urge to spend again.
“I remember when I was younger—twenties, even some into the thirties—that I would buy something and it was often discretionary. And then I would almost immediately come up with something—the next thing I wanted to save up to get. You know what I mean? Like the next stereo component or some good hiking boots or whatever. Like it would immediately come to mind, what I was going to start saving up for next to get.”
There are two psychological factors at play here. First, we are notoriously bad at predicting how happy or even just satisfied we will be with a given purchase. Second, even if we accurately predict how we will feel right after buying something, the feeling is typically much more fleeting than we anticipated (which is related to the Consumer Wisdom habit of Perspective).
At the same time, too much restraint can also have a negative effect on our well-being. Indeed, selective consumption can do a lot to promote our well-being (the Consumer Wisdom habit of Purpose addresses this directly). And being a consumer is inescapable: a place to live, clothes and food, recreation, education, travel. These are all things we need and want, and that can make life much better. And many things and experiences do bring us great joy. So, responsibility isn’t just about restraint – it’s about recognizing the paradoxical effects of consumption and taking responsibility for navigating the endless stream of choices in front of us.
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