To illustrate I will start off with a joke: A successful lawyer parked his brand new Porsche Carrera GT in front of the office, ready to show it off to his colleagues. As he goes to get out of the vehicle, a truck speeds by, hitting the car and completely tearing off the driver’s door. Fortunately, a cop in a police car is close enough to see the accident and pulls up behind the Porsche. Before the cop has a chance to ask any questions, the lawyer starts screaming hysterically about how his Porsche, which he had just picked up the day before, is now completely ruined. “The vehicle will never be the same, no matter how hard the repairers work to restore the damage.” After the lawyer finishes his rant, the cop shakes his head in disgust and disbelief. “I can’t believe how materialistic you lawyers are,” he said. “You are so focused on your possessions that you neglect the most important things in life.” “How can you say such a thing?” asked the lawyer. The cop replies, “Don’t you even realize that your left arm is missing? It got ripped off when the truck hit you!!!” “Oh, my God!” screams the lawyer. “My Rolex!!”
Amusing as this joke may be, for many, life is but a never ending game of attainment and display of possessions and wealth, in the hope that this will bring us happiness. This game of displaying one’s wealth has gone toward exploiting the earth’s resources on an unprecedented scale. While status symbols have been used throughout human history to highlight wealth, power, and prestige, current Western society has taken this to a new level. To put this into perspective, in the last fifty years humanity has used more resources than all previous civilizations before us.
Conspicuous Consumption – The Intent of Broadcasting One’s Social Status
Sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in 1899 to describe the behavioural characteristics of the new wealth which emerged after the Second Industrial Revolution. Marketers and the modern economy have woven conspicuous consumption into almost every aspect of society. Conspicuous consumption was used to describe how individuals or families publicly manifested their social power and prestige through the possession of material goods or services purchased through wealth creation, be it real or perceived.
The 20th century has seen an epidemic of conspicuous consumption occur throughout Western countries and economies. This mindset is now increasingly infiltrating Eastern society and cultures as well. With improvements in standards of living and the greater discretionary spending capacity of the middle classes, consumption has turned from intrinsic practical goods and services to encompass products and services motivated by prestige, status, and the display of social ranking. It is interesting to note, conspicuous consumption can be classified as either a behavioural addiction or narcissistic tendency – or both.
Examples of Modern Conspicuous Consumption
- Luxury Cars / Boats
- Designer Clothes and Jewellery
- Designer Accessories (handbags, footwear, technological gadgetry, etc.)
- Branded Clothes (you know, the ones with the little horsy and alligator on them)
- Oversized Houses
Social Media The New Realm of Conspicuous Consumption – Conspicuous Leisure
Today social media is pervasive throughout modern society. While conspicuous consumption is linked to materialism and relates to the purchase of goods or services with the intent of broadcasting one’s social status and wealth, conspicuous leisure relates to what we do with our time through leisure activities. Most of us are guilty at some stage of having posted a photo of our holiday or a meal at a flashy restaurant on social media. This is a form of conspicuous leisure. Vacations which are promoted via any means (social media, bringing back souvenirs, sending postcards, etc.) are in essence reflections of our innermost desire to feel good about ourselves through our consumptive behaviour. It is not the actual experience as such, it is the desire to make visible and promote these experiences to others in order to garner acceptance and approval.
Today social media plays a major role in facilitating our experiences and promoting these to others. We gain social status cues from posting material about our lives on social media. We are more aware of our image and “brand me” and take the necessary steps to ensure our social media posts represent us in the most positive light to our friends, colleagues etc… This constant need to deliver a certain persona can make us feel anxious, stressed, or even depressed. Trying to keep up with our friends who take regular overseas vacations, dine at the best restaurants, own all the latest tech, live in a trendy area, or own a luxury car can drive us to distraction. We end up living a lie.
Materialism and Happiness
Researchers are still trying to ascertain whether materialism stokes unhappiness, unhappiness fuels materialism, or both. Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College, Illinois, dedicated a book to the subject, aptly named The High Price of Materialism. After extensive research into the link between materialism and the quality of our lives, he found that the more materialistic values we hold, the more our quality of life diminishes. When measuring materialistic values and well-being in samples of adolescents, college students, and adults, the results showed a clear pattern of psychological (and physical) difficulties associated with holding wealth, popularity, and image.
Our intrinsic values promoting social, emotional, and ecological well-being have been eroded by the constant mantra of consumption and materialism. Not only has consumerism and conspicuous consumption destroyed our levels of well-being and happiness, as well as our social networks, it is has become a powerful driver for the demand for resources that is unrivalled in human history. So the next time you think about posting something through social media, stop and think. Am I doing this to gain some form of kudos with my friends and colleagues? Whatever your decision, being aware of why you do things can help you regain your freedom and not be enslaved to conformity, trying to achieve happiness through external means.
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