Some Americans love this time of year, of buying lots of stuff to make their dreams come true. Other Americans understand that this behavior consumes virgin materials and is not a sustainable lifestyle in the long term. Yet, every year commentators look at the sales numbers for Black Friday and Cyber Monday as a sign of economic health. They were quite good this year, according to ShopperTrak-Black Friday – sales increased 6.6 percent over last year, over $11.4 billion in retail purchases and the biggest dollar amount ever spent. Cyber Monday was even better-IBM’s Benchmark research firm noted that online spending was 33 percent higher than the same period last year and was 29.3 percent higher than Cyber Monday 2010. Now there is even a question of numbers for Cellular Tuesday, but are these anticipated shopping days that important?
In the 1960’s, America’s economy was growing quickly, faster than at any other time in history. At that time, Robert Kennedy asked an insightful question: if we grow our consumption by 50%, does that mean we are 50% richer in a real sense? 50% better off? 50% happier? He suggested back then that we needed to stop measuring our progress by the quantity of activity and instead measure it by quality of life.
However, that is extremely difficult when advertising messages are blasted at us daily–buy, buy, buy! Promising we can become more popular, sexier, thinner, healthier and more loved. After decades of pursuing stuff for the promise of success, most of us are deeply addicted. There is even a new movie out, “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” making fun of product placement.
Taking part in the excitement of Black Friday this year, which for me was really on Thanksgiving night, I interviewed individuals at the front of many of the long lines, camped out waiting for the stores to open. After many discussions, I came to understand it was not really about bargains and consumption, but more about success, tradition and shopping as a group activity. At 10:30PM, one woman standing about 10th in line had been waiting at Best Buy since 5:20am Thanksgiving Day. She had not taken any breaks and only had a small sandwich. She articulated what many others in line agreed with “This is how I spend my Thanksgiving every year; it is my tradition and the highlight of my year.” When questioned about her shopping list she said, “I just like to get a new laptop and TV every year. It makes me feel good.” “I am very happy.” And she said that even before she stepped into the store. Americans are used to buying and then throwing a product out after a short time. Whether or not it is a toy or a laptop, as a country we are used to planned obsoletes.
To get a better grip on the cradle to grave pursuit of stuff; the now legendary animated Story of Stuff is well worth viewing. “The Story of Stuff” is especially fun to watch with kids, as well as the PBS program. We live in a consumption-based economic system which most of the world has bought into. Fortunately, there are people who aspire not to join this idea and, without attempting the impossibility of living without money or stuff, try to change the way we think about our consumption.
Consider this-if we buy less stuff then we have less stuff to maintain. We would not need to work quite as long to make money that we can use to buy more stuff. If we work less, we have more time to spend with our families and friends. Ask your friends how many of them could manage to spend 10% less on stuff in exchange for an extra month’s vacation every year. We could start with the actions of each individual-small changes make a big difference. This idea is not new; bestselling author Juliet Schor’s book Plenitude: The NewEconomics of True Wealth talks about this concept and also offers a short video.
Shopping less and working less means in the end finding new sources of happiness, which is easy to say but harder to do. However, the research is in-more stuff does not make us happier. ”The Five Ways to Well-Being”, from the scientists at the Centre for Well Being, shows that well being is rested in awareness. Connecting with people, being physically active, taking notice of the world around us, learning new things and giving to others round out the ways human beings can increase their well being. Not one activity on the list has to do with increasing their consumption of stuff.
What do you think?
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