Consumerist messages are all around us: buy, spend, consume. Underpinning these is the powerful message that success in life is defined by your spending power. But it’s more than that; there is a strong message too that we should be constantly striving for more: spending more, which means earning more, constantly wanting more. We should never be satisfied with what we have got, because that will mean we will desire less and therefore spend less.
This sort of materialism is problematic at a number of levels. In particular, it has the unfortunate effect of making it less likely that people will count their blessings and appreciate what they already have. This can be at a simple, straightforward level. For example, wanting to buy that new item of clothing may mean that great clothes you already have gather dust in the wardrobe. But, it can also apply at a broader level, in the sense that we can lose sight of the positives of our lives. Positive can easily come to be defined as whatever is new, shiny and exciting – all quite superficial compared to what is really important in our lives.
When we add to this the fact that news media tend to focus largely on negative stories – wars, terrorist incidents, disasters, crimes and so on – we can see that there is another strong cultural message that detracts from the positives in our lives. The negativity fed to us daily reinforces the message that happiness is to be found in materialist consumption – spending money! So it takes us back to the idea that what is important is what we buy. We may joke about ‘retail therapy’, but there is a very serious message about being part of a culture that defines satisfaction in consumerist terms. This is ironic when you consider that consumerism, by its very nature, breeds dissatisfaction. When you have bought the latest desired item, there is always another one to entice you into spending further.
Wealth tends to be defined in financial terms these days, again reflecting the consumerist materialism that is all around us. But, originally, the term ‘wealth’ was much broader. Wealth is what makes you rich, but how riches are defined can be much wider than just your bank balance or stocks and shares. What makes us rich is much more than money, spending power or possessions.
An important concept here is that of ‘social capital’. This refers to the benefits we get from social connections and relationships, the ‘people’ resources we can draw upon. And, regardless of material wealth, people differ enormously in terms of the social capital they have access to. Some people who devote much of their time and energy to material gain can lose out in social capital terms – they are too busy ploughing their own financial furrow to gain the benefits of wider human connections. By contrast, some people who have very little materially may be very wealthy because of the riches they have in their life associated with people and relationships, not money and possessions.
There is also ‘cultural capital’ to consider. The benefits of education and a thirst for learning, the pleasures of the arts and music and other cultural ‘riches’ can be of far more value than being able to afford the latest shiny object or being able to show off our material wealth.
So, when it comes to counting your blessings, to working out how ‘rich’ you are, don’t forget to include your social and cultural capital, as these can generally do far more for your well-being than straightforward material rewards.