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Consumerism. The emotional expense of getting more "things."

Updated on November 14, 2019
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Lani is dedicated to change and writes about her journey, the journey of others, and the insights gained through experience and research.

By Definition:

Consumerism as an economic term is a state, country, or policy that encourages constant consumption of goods and services. In cultural terms, consumerism is the desire to own more than you need. To consume is the Western way; it is the American way, and to maintain it is difficult and expensive. The expense is more than monetary. It is emotionally expensive, psychologically expensive, and environmentally expensive. This article will focus on the emotional expense of having and obtaining more than you need.

Emotionally Expensive

Spending is emotional. Needing feels bad, having feels good. In fact, needing feels so bad people will go out of their way to have more than they need. And having more than you need feels so good, people attach their self-worth to their ability to have. Consumption through purchasing is more of an emotional transaction than it is monetary. A transaction that results in getting what you want (not necessarily need) is emotionally rewarding. Wanting something for a long time builds emotional tension and discontent. Eventually, the want begins to feel like a need, and that need must be satisfied.

Superficial purchases provide shallow rewards that depreciate over time. Buying your second car does not feel nearly as good as your first. The same is true for your second house, second Coach bag, or second Harley. You may be thinking, " those are big purchases, I don't even have those things." The law of diminishing returns stands for smaller purchases as well. The pleasure and excitement of buying your first comic book or concert t-shirt share the same diminishing return. If purchasing something, you do not need, no longer makes you feel good, it may seem logical to withdraw from the activity. Or... you can buy more, or buy something more expensive. Either option may provide higher emotional returns, initially, but those emotional returns will also diminish. The emotional returns attached to consumption create a cycle. Actually, the emotional returns attached to consumption create an addictive and codependent emotional roller coaster. Something someone else has makes you "want," wanting creates emotional tension. Emotional tension surrounding your "want" increases until you begin to put forth increasing efforts to "have" that "want." If it is something you can "afford" (relative term), then you go out and get it. You feel satisfied, and your tension is released. However, if you cannot simply go out and purchase your "want", more effort is required, thus more emotional tension builds and more reward is expected. More "effort" translates into many things. You may restrict your "wants" in other areas of your life and reroute those dollars towards your new "want," or you may work extra hours thus rerouting your time from somewhere else in your life towards your new "want." You may place the cost of your "want" on a credit card, or take out a loan and reroute more dollars in the future to have what you want in the present. If no legal avenues seem viable you may resort to illegal means to obtain your "want."

The culture of consumerism conditions many to attribute happiness to material gains. To be happy you must have a house, a car, a significant other, a good paying job, 2.3 children and the latest iPhone. Society tells us, if you have these things you are happy, if you do not then you must not be happy. You couldn't possibly be happy...or could you? Keeping up with the Jones' or maintaining the status quo is taught to be our route to happiness but studies have shown the exact opposite. Chasing "things" causes stress, emotional and physical insecurities, and depression, to name a few. Tim Kasser, PhD, wrote in his book "The High Price of Materialism" (MIT Press, 2202), when people organize their lives around...product acquisition, they report greater unhappiness in relationships, poorer moods and more psychological problems.


Consumerism and materialism are based on extrinsic values. Extrinsic value is placed on something that is not a necesity but is thought to make life tangibly better (i.e. a big TV, a vehicle, shoes). Intrinsic value is placed on anything necessary for life (i.e. food, protection from natural elements, water). Not all extrinsic purchases are bad. Shoes may not be necessary for life but depending on where you live, shoes can absolutely offer intrinsic value in the form of safety. If you are someone who must walk everywhere, shoes can broaden the distance you travel at a time and give you access to more resources. A larger television to replace your perfectly fine smaller television has purely extrinsic value and has zero intrinsic value, as your life can and will go on uninterrupted without it.

To combat consumerism and materialism we must rationally divide our purchases into simple categories, "wants," and "needs." Ask yourself how your life will be changed if you do not have the "thing", but you have the money and/or time that you would have spent getting it. Think of the dollar amount of your "want" and determine three other ways you could spend that money. Note: your lifestyle and the things you currently have may drive your needs. For example, if you have a car and it is your primary source for transportation, the car may be under the "want" section (face it, if we really tried, a lot of us could get along without a car), but gas must be under the "need" section, as would tires and oil changes. If you currently live without a car but desperately want one, realize that you may be making your "wants" list smaller by one, but making your "needs" list larger by at least five depending on where you live. Every "need" you have has an associated dollar amount that you would also need. Adding anything to either list increases your cost of living and increases your stress and your dependence on steady or increasing income. The less you have, the less money you need, the less you must trade your time for money.

I am not perfect, and I am not free from or immune to the consumerist culture I was raised in. I am writing articles like this to come to terms with my own contribution to the world we all live in. My articles on consumerism and sustainability are my truth. Knowledge is power, I have the knowledge and now I have the power to change. We all have the power to change. Change what we think, change what we eat, change what we see as acceptable. For me, it is no longer acceptable to maintain the status quo. So I am trying to change it for myself. I am a recovering consumerist trying to make the effort to minimilize my life, and maximize my love of life. I still buy things I don't need, I still have more than I need, and because of that I am still trapped in the hamster wheel of capitalism. Constantly chasing dollars to maintain the cage my wheel is in. I get some dollars and I change and upgrade my wood shavings. I may get a bigger water bottle, or a new fancy tunnel. Hell I might even buy a bigger cage, but I'm still on a wheel, and I'm still in a cage, hoping my wheel doesn't break or get taken away. I want to change my relationship to my wheel. Get on it less frequently maybe, perhaps run a little slower. Ultimately, not need a wheel at all...wouldn't that be great? Wouldn't that be worth the effort?

The High Price of Materialism
The High Price of Materialism
This book is great for anyone who has begun to question their thinking, their values and their behaviors. This book helped me to realize the weight and cost of making "things" a goal. This book is a thorough and reflective view into consumerism and materialism and how much all of us pay for it.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Lani Morris


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