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Consumption and wellbeing

Interview with Beverley Searle
If you consider the many factors that influence people’s well-being, the conversation, sooner or later, is going to come around to issues of consumption. It’s always been the case that consumption is featured prominently in people’s pursuit of well-being. But today, people can consume stuff at a higher level and with greater variety and with greater novelty than anything that their grandparents could have dreamed of. But all this consumption, all this novelty, is it really making us live better? Is it good for our happiness? To understand how happiness becomes a possibility in people’s lives, we need to look at complex interactions over time between people’s minds and their bodies. And people’s consumption habits are always of central and crucial importance in those interactions.
We need to ask questions, not just about what people want and what they get and what the implications for that are for their well-being, but also about the factors involved in producing and distributing goods and in displaying them. What are the social effects of an individual’s consumption habits on other people, not just in the present generation, but over time? To help me answer some of these questions, I’m going to meet with Beverley Searle, a senior lecturer in human geography at the University of Dundee.
So Beverley, what aspects of well-being does your research focus on? Well, I’m interested in subjective well-being. And in particular, I’d like to understand what makes us feel positive about ourselves and our lives. So can you tell us how research on marketing and consumption– how can that help us understand these interactions between subjective factors and the more objective factors of people’s lives? Well, we tend to buy things because we believe they’ll enhance the conditions of our lives– the objective well-being. But quite often it’s our emotions, the subjective element, that’s being manipulated to encourage us to buy those things. For example, the capitalist system relies on consumption habits that may not always necessarily be good for us.
So our emotions are manipulated to encourage us to buy things that we might not otherwise buy. And our emotions, the way our emotions are manipulated, will be influenced by a wider social context– things such as cultural traditions, or socioeconomic circumstances, or political factors. Edward Bernays, who is considered to be the father of public relations, he used something called the Pleasure Principle Theory to convince people to purchase items. And this was not because they needed them, but merely for their own pleasure. And Bernays used ideas developed by his uncle, who’s the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.
Bernays believed that by creating an emotional attachment to products, people will consume them through an innate need for gratification– so buying things because they made them feel good. And the application of psychoanalytic techniques led to the birth of marketing and advertising and the subsequent rise in the importance of branding. Global consumer brands are no longer marketing commodities or goods but carefully contrived concepts. And as Klein discusses, brands have become experiences. They’ve become lifestyles. And they come to represent our identities. So how do these things actually affect our well-being? Well, any happiness or satisfaction derived from consumption then will depend on whether it is real or imagined needs that have been fulfilled.
There can be psychological consequences to continually being exposed to new temptations and to having too much choice. And this is the argument that Barry Schwartz puts forward. And he suggests that choice is illusionary, because it can lead to paralysis. And what he means is that we are unable to make a choice in case we make the wrong one. He also suggests that consumption can lead to stress rather than pleasure, because even having made our choice, we still worry about whether it was the right one or the best choice.
If we’re really worried about the kinds of harms that consumption might be doing to us, what kinds of practical steps do you think that we can take to change our societies, to change ourselves, in ways that will be better for our well-being? Well, in some sections of society, we are changing from being passive consumers who are coerced and enticed by adverts to actively changing our consuming behaviour. People have become disillusioned with capitalism and are concerned about the damage that excessive consumption is having on society and the environment. So people are collectively making decisions about voluntarily simplifying their lives or just generally slowing down the pace of living.
So in the voluntary simplicity movement, for example, they are resisting high consumption lifestyles or materialistic desires. And they seek instead alternative, simpler ways of living. And the slow movement, which was founded in Italy in the late 1980s as a counterculture to fast food, has grown on a global scale. And it’s now permeated many areas of life where people are preserving traditional methods, sustainable food growth using local produce, or supporting local business, and just resisting the general speeding up of all areas of life. If we adopt a well-being focus, what areas of our lives are most likely to be impacted by that?
Well, using a well-being focus to think about consumption is really important, because how we behave our consumption behaviours individual can impact on much wider areas of society. So for example, if we are shopping locally, we can support our local communities. We might be reducing car journeys. We can also be supporting the economy. We can support local businesses, but it’s also about supporting our national businesses as well. Voluntary simplicity is not about not consuming, but it’s about consuming more ethically. And this has implications then at the international level. If we are consuming more ethically, that means we’re taking into consideration the real costs of production and consumption. And this can draw our focus on two important areas.
Firstly, a living wage and fairly traded goods. And this can help take us towards reducing global inequalities. Secondly, if we are more mindful of the waste and the pollution that our consumption is causing, this can take steps towards reducing the damage that we’re doing to the environment. So we’re living in an extraordinary era of high mass consumption of unprecedented consumer choice. Are we benefiting from it? Well, to understand that, we need to think not just about our own personal choices and how they affect our own well-being, that of other people’s well-being. And research is beginning to show a new kind of deliberate consumption emerging.
People are beginning to ask awkward questions about the benefits but also potential harms of high mass consumption. These are unavoidably moral questions for which we really don’t have any easy answers. But we do need to ask, for example, about how much freedom we realistically have in environments where our choices are so heavily constrained by advertising. There are also questions about whether or not this freedom to consume ought actually to be constrained in quite deliberate ways, given that so many people consume in harmful ways that are harmful to themselves and to other people. There are important questions to be posed, for example, for the voluntary simplicity movement.
Sounds like a good idea, but is it really such a good idea for parts of the world where the people who are still struggling to meet their absolutely basic needs and where a vibrant economy is absolutely essential to their future well-being. These are questions we think that you will want to engage in. We think they are questions that you have important answers to offer for us. And we hope, therefore, that throughout this course you’ll engage in our online discussions on these issues.
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