Purchasing as a way to define ourselves
We are always making consumer decisions: where to go on vacations (when we’re lucky enough to get a vacation), what smartphone to by (do we really need them?), what kind of clothes do I need or want and where should I get them. The list can be never-ending.
Consumer-based choices bombard us every day from all types of sources. The objects we buy are, in some way, a glimpse of understanding of what we think is important.
I do think capitalism is one of the better types of economic engines of growth. Through capitalism, we have a wide range of options. In these options, we try to find or increase our happiness to the greatest possible extent.
Whether consciously or not, we try to paint a picture of ourselves with the objects we buy. Something as small as the shoes we buy or the brands of coffee or coffee establishments we frequent from a blurry picture of ourselves.
These purchases are based on our core concepts of self by reflecting who we think we are, how we want to live, and what we think will contribute to what we think is living the good life and happiness.
As a result of all our actions as consumers, we find ourselves asking a constant question: what is going to make me happy?
I wrote about money as a source of freedom in the hope that we can make better decisions as consumers. Yet, we often find ourselves in the same cycle of spending too much or spending on the wrong items.
We sometimes, without knowing it, want the wrong things or status mostly because we don’t know who we are or what we’re about. We have a fleeting sense of what’s right for ourselves.
It can be an awkward situation, to buy something because you think you need it or want it until we really think about why. We can ask ourselves if we are really qualified to know what we want.
It seems weird to doubt ourselves when we make purchases. I’ve felt the temptation of the consumer pull. I could have fallen for the marketing ploys of the latest iPhone or computer if I didn’t know myself well enough.
The pull of commercialism
These commercial pulls to our perceived desires for wants and needs, to identify ourselves by what we buy is a cornerstone of modern capitalism.
As I mentioned above, I support capitalism but we have to be aware of the alure capitalism creates. This results in creating a fog of what we need, want and increases self-doubt.
To get through this fog we have to harness our self-knowledge and a create a solid notion of what we really need. These are our cornerstones for making the right choices and taking personal responsibility for our consumption.
Under these circumstances we find another obstacle, finding self-knowledge isn’t as easy or obvious as we might think. I’m sure you can think of a few poor purchase choices, I know I can think of quite a few.
Poor purchase choices can lead to stressful situations. Buying an expensive vehicle can put stresses on other needs. There are bags or shoes that may be really nice but go months sitting in a closet without wear.
When looking for homes, there are so many nice or better homes that you feel like you need and really want, until you look at the cost. Then you think: am I willing to give up going on vacations? Can my car last a few more years? These are stressful events.
I often wonder what it would be like to live in another country. Then I start to think about employment, living conditions, language barriers, healthcare, and family left behind. The last thing I wanted to do is get somewhere and realize I’ve made a huge mistake.
These are real mistakes made by real people all the time. We all make some mistakes yet our mistakes don’t define who we are. they are chances for us to learn about who we are and our place in the world.
Influence of the “good life”
We are social by nature so we look to others for cues. Here’s an example I often notice. I’ll go out to different stores and restaurants. If I’m interested in a store, I’ll look inside and sometimes there’s no one in the establishment.
What does this mean? Does it mean that this isn’t a place people like to go? Am I here at an off time? If it was good, wouldn’t people be there?
I go in regardless of these thoughts, I want to know what’s happening for myself. I see other people looking at the establishment I just entered. It’s no longer empty and they come in.
I pay attention to this when I go out and it happens often. Can it be a coincidence?
Maybe, I have no idea but it’s interesting if you take the time to observe people.
Another topic I find interesting is the common use of iPhones or other expensive smartphones. I like to observe people but I do it casually and not in a creepy sort of way. The smartphone, for a lot of people, can be considered a lifeline to the world.
They really are great devices and to think about holding the world’s information in your hand is very powerful.
These devices, I don’t think to call it a phone really describes their use, cost around $1000. That’s expensive for a device you can drop in the toilet and will be obsolete in a year. Think about what you can do or where you can go with that $1000.
Yet, we are drawn to the prestige the smartphone draws. Even children, following the examples of peers and adults, are drawn to it.
The future may look at this trend with amusement but the pull of a perception of prestige is there. We are drawn to things that convey social status. At this moment in time it may be that smartphone or luxury car, tomorrow it can be something different.
The items may change but the draw of prestigious items remains within our social nature.
The pull of prestige can be an issue for us when this pull takes us to things that are not in our best interests or happiness.
How will a $1000 phone make me happier than a non-smartphone? I bet our happiness wouldn’t be diminished if these devices vanished.
I think to myself if I didn’t have a smartphone but just a non-smartphone for calls, would I be embarrassed to use it in public? For a moment, I thought I would.
I started thinking about how dependent we can be for the positive views of others, even strangers. Then I realized I don’t care what people would think and as long as the phone worked I would consider myself lucky to have a device.
Invisible to yourself
We have selective attention and our attention is strained by the constant bombardment of information. Information can be especially selective when the information is about ourselves.
There’s a tren for us to look for information that supports what we believe and discount information we don’t believe for is inconsistent with our views.
It’s a reminder of how we can be invisible to ourselves and how our ideas are formed and executed.
When we start listening to our inner voice, or daemon as Socrates would call it, we can learn a lot about ourselves. We can figure out what will make us happy for the long-term over the superficial and fleeting joys or pleasures.
This is a way to no longer be invisible to ourselves. An opportunity to know ourselves a little better today than we did yesterday. In some way understand who we are and what we are about.
We also shouldn’t be so critical of others and their decisions when we remain invisible to ourselves.
This is something we can do right now, at this very moment. All it takes is a little time, effort, and honest self-evaluation, of ourselves to start on the right path.
Tomorrow is an option
Why wait for tomorrow when I can have it today? We live in an age of convenience and instant gratification, with access to goods and ideas no other civilization has experienced.
This may have us discount thoughts of the long-term. Can you blame us for thinking this way? The present lives so large in our sights and we have so many decisions to make every day, how can we think about tomorrow when we can barely get through today?
Consequences of this view do arrive. The choices we make at the moment do last to tomorrow. This isn’t unknown to us, yet we seem to block it out. Yes, I will buy that $1000 smartphone but wouldn’t that $1000 be better used for something else tomorrow? Probably.
We regularly make decisions based on our mood at the moment, that may or may not represent our long-term goals or interest. I was reading Guns, Germs, and Steel and thinking how different life used to be.
Life was very “in the moment” when trying to find water or address the short-term need for food and shelter. It wasn’t until we started building communities that the thoughts of tomorrow started to become important.
In the end, it’s our mental inheritance that doesn’t match the environments we created.
A habit of habits
Habits, the established ways we think and act, are often difficult to change. These thoughts and actions are out of our responses to our environment or the way we think about ourselves. they can be a coping mechanism to address certain problems.
In this way, habits can be a ghost from the past. When talking about our thoughts on tomorrow, the past creates a pressure on the present to keep that pleasurable or stress-reducing action going. To keep the same thoughts and actions as before.
You may want that $1000 smartphone because everyone else has one but maybe when growing up you could have never afforded this kind of device if they had existed then.
So this is pressure from the past to make up for something you could have never done before. It’s something I think about with my own past.
Challenging these habits can provide a great opportunity for change, an area for self-discovery and growth.
What does it all mean?
We have obstacles that make it hard to understand ourselves. It’s not an impossible task to learn more about ourselves, it’ll just take time and effort to do it. Sometimes it feels like we have none of these things.
One day we won’t wake up and say we’re done exploring what makes us the way we are. There’s an ancient Greek quote attributed to Socrates, “an unexamined life is not worth living”, meaning introspection and evaluation isn’t’ an activity that has a defined conclusion.
There’s no way for us to ever know all there is to know about ourselves. The important aspect of this search is to not stop learning about ourselves and the world around us.
Our predictable failures of self-knowledge have large and very unfortunate consequences for how we interact with capitalism.
Capitalism provides an opportunity to succeed in a competition of ideas and it can also reduce happiness when used without self-control.
People will generate goods or ideas that may not apply to us yet we feel the demand for the new, exciting, or popular things. These things won’t make us happy when we have no idea what will make us happy.
If we don’t understand what we want or misinterpret what we want or need then we fall prey to misguided attempts for quick solutions to happiness.
We know quick solutions aren’t real solutions and just another mistake on the path to self-discovery and improvement.
Problems around self-knowledge lead to problems in our personal economies. They lead us to expenditures that take resources from one area of high return to an area of low returns.
A $1000 smartphone is a low return when you think about the things you could do with $1000. Maybe take classes to learn a language or a new skill.
Under these circumstances we still have hope. A hope in that we are capable of change. We can improve upon ourselves and learn from our mistakes to explore the foundations of our happiness.
When we gain knowledge about ourselves we can make informed decisions for the allocation of our limited resources. These gains in knowledge and resources may be a path in how to have a happier life.