Consumerism is not a pathway to joy and meaning in life. This is not a new revelation. In fact, we all know it to be true.
If specifically asked the question, nobody would ever say the secret to a joyful, meaningful life is to buy a lot of stuff. Deep down in our hearts, we know we were made for something bigger—something more significant than mere consumption.
Nobody really believes happiness is directly tied to the number of things we own. Yet almost all of us live like it.
We work more hours than ever before, earn more income, but save less. Personal debt has increased dramatically over the previous three decades. And consumer spending has been exalted to a virtue in our society—even patriotic.
As a result, the average credit card holder now carries 4 different credit cards in his or her pocket. Shopping malls outnumber high schools 2 to 1. 70% of Americans visit a shopping mall each week. Televisions outnumber persons in American homes. Home sizes have doubled in the past 50 years. And consumer debt has risen to 35% of household income.
Will Rogers said it like this, “Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like.”
We never intentionally set out to buy more than we need or spend more than we make. But here’s the problem:
Mindless consumption always turns into excessive consumption.
And excess consumption results in more stress, more burden, more pressure to impress, more envy, less financial freedom, less generosity, less contentment—and I haven’t even begun to mention the environmental impact.
It is time to rethink our spending habits, rediscover thoughtfulness and intentionality in our purchases, and remind ourselves that happiness is not on sale at the department store. Buying more is not the solution. We were made for greater pursuits than material possessions. And our lives should reflect that truth.
How then, might we begin to rethink and challenge mindless consumerism in our lives? Consider this intentional approach:
1. Stop and reevaluate. Look at the life you have created. Are you finding the time, money, and energy for the things that matter most? Have your possessions become a burden on your life in any way? Slow down long enough to honestly evaluate the whole picture: your income, your mortgage, your car payment, your spending habits, your day-to-day pursuits. Are you happy? Or is there, perhaps, a better way?
2. Stop copying other people. Just because your neighbors, classmates, and friends are chasing a certain style of life does not mean you need to as well. Your life is too unique to live like everyone else. And if you think you’ll be happier by following all the latest trends in society, you are wrong. Just ask anybody who has stopped.
3. Understand your weaknesses. Recognize your trigger points. Are there certain stores that prompt unnecessary purchases in your life? Are there products, addictions, or pricing patterns (clearance sales) that prompt an automatic response from you? Maybe there are specific emotions (sadness, loneliness, grief) that give rise to mindless consumption. Identify, recognize, and understand these weaknesses. 51% of the solution can be found by simply recognizing the problem.
4. Look deep into your motivations. Advertisers play on our motivations by appealing to our desires in subtle ways. Advertisements are no longer based on communicating facts about a product. Instead, they promise adventure, reputation, esteem, joy, fulfillment, and sex. What inner-motivations are subconsciously guiding your purchases? What motivations (greed, envy) need to be rooted out? And what motivations (meaning, significance) need to find their fulfillment elsewhere?
5. Seek contribution with your life and usefulness in your purchases. To live is to consume. As contributing members of society, we are going to work and earn and purchase and consume. But we are more than consumers, we are contributors. Our presence on this earth ought to bring value to the people around us. Purchase only what you need to more effectively accomplish your unique role in this world—everything else is only a distraction. Just because you can buy something doesn’t mean you should.
6. Count the hidden cost of each purchase. Too often, when we purchase an item, we only look at the sticker price. But this is rarely the full cost. Our purchases always cost more. They require our time, energy, and focus (cleaning, organizing, maintaining, fixing, replacing, removing). They prompt worry, stress, and attachment. Henry David Thoreau said it best, ”The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”
7. Test your limits. Experiment with a no-shopping challenge. You set the terms—even the world’s biggest shopper can find one experiment to test their boundaries. Go 30 days with no consumer purchases, 60 days without visiting the mall, or 120 days without buying clothes. You set the specific challenge based on your needs. You will break the cycle of shopping in the short-term and lay the groundwork for greater victory in the long-term.
8. Give more things away. Your life will feel lighter. Your heart will feel warmer. The world will be better. And you will be reminded shopping is not the answer.
9. Do more of what makes you happy. Your possessions are not making you happy. Once our basic needs have been met, the happiness found in consumerism is fleeting at best. Instead, find what it is that truly makes you happy and do more of it. I find my happiness in faith, family, friends, and contribution. Your list may differ slightly. But either way, owning a whole bunch of stuff is almost certainly not on it.
Make intentionality your highest pursuit. Not consumerism.