Capitalist economies work on the basis of constant consumption. To keep the wheels of the economy turning people need to keep spending money. So, companies need to keep coming up with new things for us to buy, new fads and fashions, new technological gizmos and so on. Alongside this is the tendency for success in life to be measured in material terms – not just the size of one’s bank balance, but also signs of what has come to be known as ‘conspicuous consumption’. This involves displaying symbols of wealth and standing: expensive cars, designer clothes, being seen out in the most expensive restaurants, and so on. Of course, these two phenomena are not separate. This is because all this conspicuous consumption keeps the economy going, and, in turn, much of the media message put across is that wealth can bring happiness: spending money is good for you, so the more money you have, the happier you can be.
The reality, of course, is very different from the rhetoric. While having lots of money can no doubt bring many advantages, there are at least two flaws in the consumerist logic. First, as human beings, we are highly adaptive creatures. So, the more money you have, the more you get used to it, the more you adapt. For example, if you occasionally have a treat of the finest foods, you can really appreciate what they offer. But, once the finest foods become your staple diet, you soon find that they lose much of their appeal. We have adjusted to the new situation; it has become normal. This is part of the reason why wealth can bring greed. Once you adapt to the new situation, you want more, you want something new and exciting – something more expensive perhaps.
Second, there are many important things in life that money can’t buy, of course. Focusing all our attention on material rewards can not only give us a distorted picture of what is likely to bring happiness, but also stand in the way of that happiness. What I am thinking of in particular is the way in which materialist ambitions can create problems. Consider, for example, the marriage that breaks up because one or both partners is focusing so much on promotion and career success or on building their business that they are neglecting their family life. Consider also the children who grow up not feeling loved because one or both parents struggle to express their love except in materials terms – gifts, holidays, expensive meals out. Nice though these things might be, they are, of course, no substitute for a genuine, heartfelt expression of love.
Sadly, there are also many people – far too many, in fact – who are well paid, but who gain little or no satisfaction from their work. I have always respected a friend of mine who was promoted and was therefore paid more than before. However, she got far less job satisfaction in her new job and therefore returned to her old, less well-paid job at the earliest opportunity. I wonder how many people would be much happier in a less well-paid job that brings them more job satisfaction. Very, very many, I suspect.
There is much talk these days of spirituality, although much of it is superficial and simplistic, not doing justice to the complex issues involved. ‘Spirit’ is linked to the idea of breath, what keeps us alive and, by extension, what gives our lives meaning. If all that gives our lives meaning are money and materialism, then, however financially rich we may be, we are in fact very spiritually impoverished. Some people are so fixated in financial gain that they cannot see the benefits of so many other things that can offer far more than money in the bank or a flash car on the drive.