Enlightened Hedonism and Consumerism

In Essays, Philosophy, Self Improvement

In today’s essay I want to discuss what type of life philosophy most people tend to follow, whether consciously or not. In most of the world, we live in a capitalist society, and it’s also often called a consumerist society. The clue is in the name and also in the definition. Consumerism is the current social and economic order that encourages the purchase of good and services in ever-greater amounts.

This serves a twofold reason:

  1. To fill the coffers of the super rich who control the vast amount of the production.
  2. To fill our empty lives with some semblance of meaning.

We can call this life philosophy based on the consumerist model “Enlightened Hedonism” While the “Enlightened” part may appear to have positive connotations, its actual use is to distinguish this life philosophy from another even more incoherent life philosophy which we can call “Unenlightened Hedonism”.

It’s a case of “out of the frying pan, into the fire”.

The difference is this: with Enlightened Hedonism you decide that goal in life is to have pleasure and so you plan accordingly. You accept that some pleasures, such as Class A drugs and shooting people for fun, are off bounds and you realise that some pleasures have consequences. An unenlightened hedonist, on the other hand, does not make this vital distinction and so often ends up addicted to drugs or in prison.

If you are happy with making the grand goal of your life the collection of stuff, then by all means stop reading. All you have to do is to continue working away to earn money to spend on things that will give you the illusion of being happy and fulfilled.

The problem with the consumerism is quite clear from its definition:

A system which encourages the purchase of goods and services in ever-greater amounts.

The reason for this is that human beings quickly become desensitised to whatever luxuries, or for that matter, hardships, we may encounter in our lives. This is called Hedonic Adaptation.

The concept of Hedonic Adaptation is simple: no matter what happens, we will always return to our baseline level of inner happiness. So not only will you need to spend your entire life buying good and services, but you will need to buy ever-increasing amounts of them and you still will eventually return to the same level of happiness as you had when you started this whole cycle. The problem is that eventually you either run out of money or health. It’s perfectly possible to “fry” your brain’s reward circuitry with too much stimulation and then you might find that nothing you can buy gives you that “hit” that you requires to stay happy. This is exactly what happens to long-term drug addicts.

Perhaps there is a better way to live your life.

Of course, it sounds easy to just leave the whole rat-race behind but the whole system is conspiring to keep you on that path. There are social as well as personal pressures to contend with and let’s not forget the advertising juggernaut which keeps the whole capitalist system chugging along. Don’t believe me? In 2012 the global advertising spending reached $557 Billion. To put that into perspective, if “advertising” was a country, that amount of money would rank it number 21 in the world for GDP , sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and Sweden. If we compare the global advertising budget to defense spending, you would have the second best funded military in the world after the United States of America, who manage to spend around $682 Billion a year on defense (and that’s still only a fraction of their overall military spending).

The reasons companies all over the world are willing to spend over half a trillion dollars on advertising in one year is due to the simple fact that it works. It’s not just about convincing you to buy a particular product, it’s also about keep you distracted and ingraining the materialistic lifestyle into your head so you don’t even mull over the alternatives. Advertisers only need to expose you to an advert a few dozen times to have an affect on your purchasing decisions and habits.

Let’s examine a few of the other pressures that have made Enlightened Hedonism the default life philosophy for the majority of the world.

Keeping up with the Joneses

As usual, it’s worth listening to what Urban Dictionary has to say on this.

To strive beyond one’s means to keep up socially and financially with others in one’s social circle or neighborhood.

It’s not surprising that in a society based on consumption, people often judge each other based on the things they own and flaunt. It’s a form of collective peer pressure. The poor copy the rich and the rich copy a small elite of celebrities who, despite their often dysfunctional lifestyles, are held up as role models and idealised. So not only is excessive consumption not frowned upon, it’s actively encouraged as a path towards a “good life” and happiness.

In fact, as a society, our entire concept of happiness is quite twisted. We are taught that happiness is something external that we can have by doing certain actions and owning certain things. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Happiness is actually something that comes from within, not from without. This is quite obvious because Hedonic Adaptation works both ways. Even when you lose something or you have a negative experience, you eventually return to your “standard” level of happiness. If happiness came from outside ourselves, someone who lost a limb should never be happy again, but that’s simply not what happens.

Another strong source of evidence is that the increase in material wealth and goods in the developed world has had little to no effect on the happiness of its population. People entwined in this “joyless economy” constantly pursue material objects instead enjoying the simpler and longer lasting pleasures that life has to offer. The level of materialism in a society is actually positively correlated to the level of depression in that society.

This may be due to the fact that we are constantly judged by the clothes we wear, the gadgets we own, the place where we live and money we (pretend) to have. There is a joke that runs something along these lines: “A rich man is someone who earns 20% more than their neighbours”.

The problem with everybody constantly comparing themselves to other people is that if you don’t continue purchasing your relative social standing and perceived quality of lifestyle actually goes down. Of course, your actual quality of life doesn’t go down, after all, you have not lost anything.

You would imagine that the system would be much more linear:

  • If you consume, you social standing goes up
  • If you cease to consume, your social standing stays the same.
  • If you lose the things you already have, your social standing goes down.

This is not how it works. It’s more akin to a race, if you don’t keep moving forward (i.e. Purchasing goods and consuming services) then you slip behind and lose.

He who dies with the most toys wins

~ Malcom Forbes

This leads us to the strange psychological state that exists in many western countries. Our standard of living, measures in terms of the basics we actually need to survive and flourish, has never been higher. We have a huge amount of modern conveniences that make the average person live a better quality of life than the royalty of the past. Via the internet we have unlimited access to the world’s knowledge and we can make journey’s that once used to take weeks or months in a matter of hours. We are, quite literally, living our ancestors’ dream. Yet, we are not any happier that we were before.

While some of this can be attributed to the phenomenon of Hedonic Adaptation that we discussed earlier, a lot of it can also be attributed to the fact that we don’t value our absolute wealth and lifestyle, but our relative wealth and lifestyle. This means that as long as there is someone with a better car, a better looking or more intelligent partner, a higher salary or anything else, we will not be happy.

Planned Obsolescence

If we just take a step back and return to the whole point of attempting to stop consuming. We saw that if you do and you have not mentally prepared yourself, you might feel that your social standing and/or quality of life actually decrease. Part of this may well be caused by the reaction of other people. They might wonder why you are still using a four year old smartphone, a ten year old car or why you are not wearing this years’ latest fashion trend. This is actually part of a bigger system called planned obsolescence. This is a systematic approach by companies all over the world to keep you consuming. It comes in a few flavours:

  1. Psychological Obsolescence – An example of this is how the clothing industry works. Fashion changes each year and makes perfectly good clothes “unwearable” if you fall for peer pressure.
  2. Manufactured Obsolescence – This is when a product is engineered in such a way to make sure it fails after a certain amount of time. This may be caused by using substandard materials in the construction or it may be part of the design itself.
  3. Systemic and Functional Obsolescence – This is when one type of technology is superseded by another. An example of this is how DVDs were taken over by Blu Ray Discs.

The first two are just ploys to get you to buy more things and are both ethically and morally indefensible, the third one can be partially understood in terms of “progress’ but, as we will see, that’s often not the case. Let’s tackle each one of these separately.

Psychological Obsolescence

This is also known as obsolescence of desirability. In other words, marketing departments try and convince you that what you already own just isn’t desirable or good enough. They are often helped by the general public, as we saw when we examined the “Keeping up with the Joneses” phenomenon. Another way to look at this is that external forces are trying to accelerate the natural process of Hedonic Adaptation. You might buy an iPhone and perhaps you would be quite happy with it for three for four years, but like clockwork a new model comes out and Apple’s marketing department goes on full assault and suddenly you feel inadequate owning the previous generation iPhone. I don’t think I even need to mention that this is the principal tactic of the clothing industry.

The whole cult of celebrities is governed by the need to make normal people feel inadequate about their current lifestyle. Celebrities are often nothing more than “brand ambassadors” for large corporations. Have you ever wondered why many celebrities don’t seem to have much talent and some are just famous for being famous! Now you know. It’s simply not a requirement of their job. They job is to sell a particular type of lifestyle which involves copious amounts of consumption. That’s it.

Manufactured Obsolescence

This is where people are often surprised about how deep the rabbit hole goes. Companies pour huge amount of time, money and resources in coming up with ways to make your products last for less time. They may not bother reinforcing weak points in the products such as joints to make sure that it’s highly likely that the product will break even with normal use. An obvious example of this is that many portable electronic devices are not waterproof, this would be an easy problem to fix but it’s in the manufacturer’s interests that the general public break as many devices as possible so they have to buy them again.The companies responsible for the manufacturing of screws make sure that the screwheads are made with soft metal and that the opening is too shallow to allow a screwdriver to fit in properly, thus resulting in damage to the screwhead and the need to replace the screw. There are countless examples in all industries. The added problem is also that products are often engineered other without thought about repairs, or with the decision to make repairing the product as difficult and expensive as possible, thus discouraging consumers to fix broken products and just buy a new one instead.

The choice of materials used in production is often dictated by the fact that the product cannot function too well, otherwise you will never have a reason to buy it again! The camera manufacturer Leica made this mistake with the Leica M3, their first ‘M” camera, in 1954. They designed and built such a brilliant and durable camera that there is still no reason to buy any other of their film cameras almost sixty years later. The only reason to buy the latest Leica M cameras is due to the fact that they now include digital capture instead of film, not the fact that they are built better. This leads us very nicely to the final type of obsolescence…

Systemic and Functional Obsolescence

Systemic Obsolescence is when a new product comes out that is technologically more advanced. Often it also happens not to be backward compatible with previous models. This is why you might be tempted to buy Leica’s latest camera instead of the sixty year old Leica M3. It has a new digital sensor inside it instead of the using film which is older technology.

Economic experts who defend planned obsolescence often use systemic obsolescence as their reason. They say that without planned obsolescence there wouldn’t be as much technological advancement. I think that it’s quite possible to argue the exact opposite.

A company following planned obsolescence would be foolish to include all of it’s latest discoveries into one product because it may not be able to offer you a compelling reason to upgrade in the next cycle. It’s makes much more economic sense for them to release a new feature or two each year and keep their research secret, thus having an “ace up the sleeve” in comparison with their opponents.

This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that some of the quickest advancements in technology have been made during wartime. This is because things have to work period. There is no hiding in the theatre of war. A military tool either does what it is intended to do (and does it well) or it does not. There is no incentive not to put the latest technological advancements into a weapon.

Another way companies can push you towards upgrading is to make fundamental changes to the new version of the product which makes it very difficult to work with unless you also happen to have that same version. An obvious example of this is Microsoft and their text-processor Word. If you have an old version of Word you will struggle to work with people using newer version because you will not be able to open their files unless they save them as a specific backward compatible file.

An Alternative?

As you can see, it’s quite easy to stick with Enlightened Hedonism, the default life philosophy of our times. I’ve clearly outlined how far the system is willing to go to exploit the fact that we are never satisfied with what we have.

If you sometimes get the feeling that there is more to life than just hoarding stuff, then perhaps it’s time to consider an alternative life philosophy to Enlightened Hedonism. Now, I’m not pretentious or arrogant enough to tell you what that life philosophy should be, but if I’ve just made you think about looking into alternatives, then I consider my job done.

Just to clarify, I’m not suggesting that one should reject everything and never consume or buy anything. I think there is a middle path in which consumerism is not the main aim of your life. You buy things as and when they are needed and, more importantly, because they are needed. Your value system should not base your identity (or other people’s) on the things you own but on what you do and how you do it. Enjoy things for the absolute value that their bring into your life, not because they allow you to appear to be better than someone else.

I think that making the decision to have a coherent life philosophy and not just following the default template already puts one ahead of the pack and brings with it many benefits. You may start becoming more aware of how you use your time and your money and concentrate on the things that truly matter and let everything else slide.

I will be sharing my life philosophy in the near future, but that’s the philosophy that’s right for me, it may not suit anyone else and I don’t expect it to, but perhaps someone somewhere will use it as a starting point to build their own life philosophy.