affective design

Exploring Emotional Design

“Affluenza” and Consumerism

Reuters has an article about “Affluenza“; how rampant consumerism appears to be increasing the incidence of depression and mental illness all over the globe… Does consumerism cause “depression, anxiety, addictions and personality disorders”? Controversial British psychologist Oliver James thinks so. The article describes how James toured several countries in the world and interviewed a number of relatively affluent people about their lives.

From the article:

An epidemic of mindless consumerism is sweeping the world with the compulsive pursuit of money and possessions making people richer but sadder… We have become addicted to having rather than being and confusing our needs with our wants.

Several questions came to mind as I read this article. How do we separate “legitimate” consumerism from “mindless” consumerism? We all need to purchase things to satisfy our needs for food, transportation, shelter and clothing. I don’t dispute mindless consumerism exists. But where do we draw the line between the two without infringing on individual rights? And who is qualified to draw it?

If we think of human social structure as following a pack mentality like that of other mammals, it’s easy to see that people are always aware of how their status compares with others in their peer group. It’s unconscious, human nature to want to “keep up with the Joneses”. The rise of global communication and media means that everyone’s peer group is a lot larger than ever before.

People’s rates of satisfaction relate directly to the comparisons they draw against their peers. In other words, if you see that everyone on your block, or in your group of friends, or with the same job as you, is driving a Lexus, then the Chevrolet that you were perfectly happy with last week may no longer be satisfactory.

Do you have any thoughts about the questions raised here? Let us know!

For more on satisfaction see:
Expectations Determine Happiness and
Emotional Burnout and the New Ergonomics

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    3 Comments so far

    1. sushil_yadav January 26th, 2007 8:49 pm

      The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature.

      In a fast society slow emotions become extinct. A thinking mind cannot feel. Scientific/industrial/financial thinking destroys the planet. Emotion is what we experience during gaps in our thinking. If there are no gaps there is no emotion. Today people are thinking all the time and are mistaking thought (words/language) for emotion.

      When society switches-over from physical work (agriculture) to mental work (scientific/industrial/financial/fast visuals/ fast words) the speed of thinking keeps on accelerating and the gaps between thinking go on decreasing.
      There comes a time when there are almost no gaps. People become incapable of experiencing tolerating gaps.

      Emotion ends. Man becomes machine. A society that speeds up mentally experiences every mental slowing-down as Depression/Anxiety. A (travelling) society that speeds up physically experiences every physical slowing-down as Depression/Anxiety. A society that entertains itself daily experiences every non-entertaining moment as Depression /Anxiety. Fast visuals/words make slow emotions extinct. Scientific /industrial/finanical thinking destroys emotional circuits…


    2. trevvg January 26th, 2007 10:11 pm

      I have to say that I agree with a lot of your points. All issues are indeed interlinked to one degree or another. And it’s true that attention spans seem to be shortening more and more. However, I would attribute this to the ever-increasing amount of information that is available for us to process.

      I’m not sure what you mean when you say that “slow emotions become extinct” and “a thinking mind cannot feel”. One of the things I’ve talked about in previous posts is that what we commonly call “logic” or “rationality” is really an emotional process. In other words, emotions provide the feedback on which we base our so-called “rational” decisions.

      You seem to be advocating a return to a largely agricultural style of living, while completing discounting the advances in life quality that have been made possible by science.

      I agree that industrialization has had many negative environmental consequences. However, I feel that I’m lucky to live in a country where we take certain benefits of industrialization (like sanitation, vaccination and clean water) for granted. I wouldn’t be eager to live in a country where thousands of people routinely die because they lack these things. Industrialization has both positive and negative effects.

    3. gen de spa August 1st, 2010 6:23 pm

      I think your article, possibly unwittingly, illustrates very succinctly the difference between “mindless” and “legitimate” consumerism; if the Chevrolet you originally owned was perfectly suitable for your needs, to desire a Lexus just because all your colleagues have one is not really a ‘legitimate’ need, it is a want. We are confusing our wants with our needs and this is what leads to “mindless” consumerism, propelled in a vicious circle by advertising and media that make us feel inadequate as we are and with what we have; buying goods to alleviate the gnawing dissatisfaction; the financial need to work harder to pay for what we have bought; and the resulting exhaustion when we collapse on the couch in front of more advertising which makes us feel inadequate.

      No one, not even the hardest core Greenie, disputes that the advances made by technology and industrialisation, like sanitation, vaccination and clean water, have not been beneficial for society. And no one would argue that a return to a time prior to these advances would be preferable, however, the argument is that our rampantly materialistic society is causing a huge proliferation of emotional distress and mental illness. This fact is illustrated by WHO studies showing the rise in mental illness; depression being projected to be the second leading illness by 2020 and already the leading cause of disabilty. However, these figures are not proportional across the world, there is an obvious over-representation in the English-speaking Western World where consumerism is more prolific.

      I think it is time we stopped touting the old party-line of ‘individual rights’ which has actually come to protect the rights of corporations at the expense of the rights of the individuals in our midst. If you own a Chevrolet, you shouldn’t be made to feel inferior for not owning a Lexus. To say that ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ is a part of human nature is absurd. It is a part of the purposefully planned and unrelieved policy of economic growth supported in Western democracies which is entirely unsustainable for the environment, the economy itself and for the people.

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