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Does The Quest For Happiness Or Identity Drive Our Consumer Culture?

22/04/2016 4:50 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST
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I often wonder what makes us deliriously want to consume. Why do we feel the inexplicable urge to purchase a whole heap of possessions and surround ourselves by them? We buy products and then smear them on our faces, our bodies, our heads; we wear them, hold them, or simply place them around us in a colourful menagerie of things. Where did all this consumption start and will it have an end? And, at any point in that consumption trajectory, will we experience happiness as a result of our ruthless purchasing?

Most would argue that the consumption revolution started in the 18th or 19th century, some would place it way back in the 15th century -- however you look at it, it's quite certain a consumer orgy occurred.

A number of factors coalesced creating the perfect timing for the consumption revolution. These included the availability of more leisure time, more dispensable income, the industrial revolution, the printing press (making more marketing possible) and the advent of the department store. The latter made spending and consuming a completely different experience to what it previously had been.

Way back then we started to consume for fun, for pleasure, for hedonism -- for those fifteen minutes of happiness that a new possession produces.

Like the majority of people around me, I'm a consumer, through and through. I like to believe I'm an active participant in the consumption game -- creative, savvy and thoughtful in my approach -- unlikely to be duped by any used-car salesman. But I have bought a few lemons in my time.

Over the years I drew the conclusion that our (and my) unprecedented zeal for product consumption came down to the quest for happiness. When we purchased an item we experienced that hedonistic pleasure, that rush of endorphins, we were momentarily suspended in a state of bliss.

In addition, there's a dreamlike quality to spending, especially on 'credit'. It doesn't seem real that we can buy something so outlandish, wonderful and perfect given our lack of monetary resources... but hang on, there's the fantastical world of credit out there.

Not to mention the projected future happiness that one imagines when said purchased object finds its way into our home, onto our figure, or into our mouths.

In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert (2013) identifies our capacity to imagine and project into the future as one of the core elements which separate humans from the rest. "What a fabulous discovery. How did human beings ever learn to preview in their imagination chains of events that had not yet come to pass?"

Gilbert identifies this perceived imaginary future as the place where we believe we might stumble upon happiness. But this day dreamed future is not concrete -- it's devoid of the details which make reality, reality -- and, as a result, is a poor representation of what this unhappy future may actually look like. Whether the depiction in our mind is misleading is not the question, rather it's how marketing and advertising assist us to see this picture more clearly, and indeed more persistently.

Happiness, I concluded, was our sole driver. In this imaginary future we perceived happiness, which drove us towards ever-increasing levels of consumption.

But is happiness the pivotal element for our consumptive behaviour? Sitting side by side it, I can't help but think, is our quest for individual identity. Who are we? Will we ever reach self-actualisation?

Products become imbued with meaning. They transcend their worth as an object, and become something far greater. They describe people, places, and situations. Think of a diamond ring -- to begin with it describes an emotion, love, a state of being, commitment, but it goes further than that -- for example a Tiffany ring makes a whole different statement than a run-of-the-mill ring from our local mall.

Products describe our person, our belief system, our culture, our monetary status and our taste.

So which is our greater driver in the game of consumption? The quest for happiness or our personal identification? And if consumption is a remarkably new phenomenon in the history of human kind, can it be a phase that will be passed over in the not too distant future?

The zeitgeist of our day is sharing. It's the spirit of our times. Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber, made the prediction that parking garages will be made obsolete in the next five years as, "transportation will be so inexpensive that it will be cheaper than owning a car."

But amidst this sharing future, what then will make us happy or define us?

The jury's out for me dear readers, what is the broader driver for consumption -- happiness or the need for identity definition? And has the very question been surpassed by something broader -- the share-revolution?

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