The more you own and the more you buy, the happier and more fulfilled your life will be. Is it true? Of course not. Have we been cleverly (and insidiously) led to believe that it’s true? You bet. Buying things beyond our basic needs (and the pressure to do so in today’s society) is known as hyper-consumerism. It’s the never-ending pursuit of happiness through the acquisition of non-essential goods.
I say never-ending because hyper-consumerism never delivers the true satisfaction and fulfillment that it promises. Experts found that people who make acquiring material things a goal in their life report greater unhappiness, more negative moods, and a variety of psychological problems. On top of that, hyper-consumerism creates spending patterns that can lead to credit card debt, living beyond your means and poor financial decisions.
Consumption is a normal part of everyday life, but it becomes a problem when it’s excessive and wasteful. Understanding how hyper-consumerism affects you is the first step toward becoming a conscious consumer.
A Brief History of Hyper-Consumerism
The concept of consumerism emerged after the Industrial Revolution when a wide variety of mass-produced goods became increasingly accessible to almost everyone. It led to increased economic growth, more jobs, and more choices for consumers.
As mass production of goods rapidly increased, there needed to be an equal demand to keep the economy growing. In other words, more people needed to buy stuff in order to keep production, employment, and profit flowing. So society found a way to turn people into consumers and convince them to buy things they don’t really need, explains Richard Robbins in his book, Global Problems and The Culture of Capitalism.
Enter hyper-consumerism and the need to buy and own. We want bigger houses, flashier cars, more clothes, the latest phone, etc. We buy things we don’t need just because there’s a blowout sale and we’re afraid to miss out. It never ends: there’s always something else to want, and to buy.
We may not believe that we seek fulfillment in acquiring more, but our actions would argue otherwise.
Let’s try to understand what drives our urge to over-consume and how it affects us. Only by becoming aware can we unlearn this behavior and live more fulfilling and financially stable lives.
Why Are We Addicted to Buying?
Besides the culture built around hyper-consumption, it’s also a personal choice to participate in it. So why do we do it?
For a Temporary Fix (of Bigger Problems)
Some people use shopping as a way to distract themselves from deeper underlying problems. One shopping addict admits that the thrill he gets from buying things is a temporary relief from feeling depressed or anxious. A study of depressed patients even showed that a compulsion to spend is prevalent in 31.9% of patients.
Buying things to treat yourself is perfectly healthy when done once in a while. But when you do it regularly to momentarily boost your mood or to avoid dealing with problems, it becomes emotional spending. It’s no surprise then that spending on non-essential goods skyrocketed during the pandemic. When asked why it did, many people said boredom, stress, depression, and because it was the only highlight of their day.
Credit Card Ownership Mentality
Remember when I mentioned that credit became widely available to encourage consumption? Well, it worked.
Many people view credit cards as the money they own or will own at a future date, so they use them for discretionary purchases with little hesitation. A Stanford study calls this psychological ownership and concluded that it’s directly linked to consumer debt.
Status (Keeping Up With the Joneses)
People have a habit of always looking over their shoulders at what others have. Owning something is not enough unless it’s the same or better than your neighbors.
In a BBC documentary titled Spend Spend Spend, Professor Andrew Oswald explains the reason accumulation of possessions doesn’t lead to a happier life is that as our wealth grows, so does our tendency to compare ourselves to others. That never ends, because no matter how much you have, somebody else always has more. To make matters worse, his experiments concluded that more than half of the people in the study were willing to give up some of what they had if it meant others would be worse off.
A Sense of Identity
We often try to define ourselves by what we wear and what we own. This causes us to form a very deep attachment to objects, and rely on them to give us a sense of identity and self-worth.
And sometimes it’s hard not to when brands cleverly sell us what we should aspire to be from an early stage in our life when we’re very impressionable. Many luxury and lifestyle brands sell us an image of a certain type of life and promise us that once we attain it we’ll feel more complete. The problem is that it never delivers.
The Use of Advertising, Marketing & Social Media
Advertising and social media have taken hyper-consumerism to new heights. And although we’re smart and educated consumers, there are two things we may not realize:
1. We’re More Impressionable Than We Think
The average consumer sees 5,000 ads a day, some of which are online targeted ads. And even though we believe they don’t affect us, advertising has an effect we don’t consciously notice. Cognitive scientist Mark Changizi explains that our preferences for a brand or product are picked up by the subconscious when we’re exposed to them regularly.
2. They’re Always One Step Ahead
As we evolve as consumers, ads evolve to keep up with us. That’s why we see products being promoted more through social media apps than traditional media.
TikTok is especially influential because ads are presented in a clever way that is not “salesy”, and by seemingly ordinary people to young, impressionable demographics. Some examples include the series “Things you didn’t know you needed from Amazon part XX”, “Perfumes that make you smell rich” (whatever rich smells like), or “X products you can’t live without”.
Once again, they make non-essential goods seem essential by appealing to your sense of self-worth, or convincing you it will enhance your life.
Also, take a look at your Instagram Explore page. What used to be a social media app is now a virtual online store and influencers are walking billboards advertising products.
How Hyper-Consumerism Affects You
Hyper-consumerism and the culture of spending and owning more affect us all, whether directly or indirectly. Let’s look at the biggest ways it impacts us.
Debt and Poor Financial Habits
Credit card debt has been increasing yearly, reaching $745 billion in the U.S in 2021, with the average American carrying 3.5 credit cards. Psychological research has found that credit cards condition us to make impulsive decisions. It also shows that consumers are more likely to buy items at stores that display Mastercard and Visa logos in their windows.
Much of our impulsive buying (like online shopping) comes from having access to credit. It’s very easy to rack up your credit card bill and develop poor financial habits. That ease has been compounded by online platforms that allow an impulse purchase with just a few clicks.
Credit card debt piles up fast, puts a huge drain on finances, and prevents many people from saving money for important purchases.
Mental Health and Stress
Carrying consumer debt is directly linked to stress, depression, and other mental health conditions. Holidays like Christmas make this worse because there is a lot of pressure on consumers to spend money on gifts, decorations, or meals to have the “perfect” holiday. The deluge of social media posts showing the epic holidays and lavish purchases of others just make it worse.
Besides stress caused by consumer debt, studies show that people who think they derive happiness through material possessions and can’t afford them are often unhappy and unsatisfied.
Lack of Real Fulfillment
Hyper-consumerism exists because we’ve been successfully convinced it leads to a higher quality of life, a better mood, and the fulfillment of emotional needs. This is of course, far from true. The feeling of happiness you get when you buy beyond what you need is always temporary. That doesn’t mean you can’t get real fulfillment, it just means you can’t get it from buying stuff.
Environmental Impact and Waste
Hyper-consumerism puts the economy’s well-being above everything else, including the environment. That threatens the very world you live in. A study released by the Journal of Industrial Ecology concluded that household consumption contributes more than 60% of greenhouse gas emissions and more than half of all land, material, and water use.
Household consumption in this instance doesn’t just mean driving your car or doing your laundry, but things like ordering fast food, fast fashion, and cheaply made stuff from Amazon or AliExpress.
How to Identify and Break Unconscious Consumer Behaviour
The good news is that you can break free from the culture of consumerism and find lasting fulfillment in your life. The key is becoming aware of your habits and taking control of your actions.
Become Aware of Your Consumer Habits
The first step to overcoming excessive consumerism is building self-awareness. Start observing your spending habits and the motivation behind them.
As I mentioned earlier, impulsive spending is often a band-aid for an emotional need. Next time you feel this strong desire, ask yourself what is triggering it. Are you using shopping as a reward? To boost your self-esteem? Boredom?
Identifying your triggers and the ‘why’ behind your spending habits will empower you to make better decisions for yourself (and your wallet).
Focus on Building Healthy Financial Habits
Instead of making a shopping list, make a list of financial goals you want to accomplish. Some examples include:
- Paying down your debt and minimizing your interest payments.
- Saving for long-term goals like buying a house, your children’s education, or a family trip. For example, instead of ordering takeaway every week, put that money towards a meaningful goal you want to accomplish.
- Learning how to budget and spending mindfully.
Gratitude, Not Wants
Change your perspective and appreciate what you already have, which for most of us is more than enough. Taking the time to express gratitude every day for everything you have in your life (including physical possessions) will free you from the constant need for more.
Reduce Consumption Oriented Activities
We’ve created many habits that revolve around consumerism. We may not even realize how those habits affect us. How many times do you go browsing in a mall or Ikea for leisure? Many people even consider shopping as one of their hobbies.
Think about your habits and how beneficial they are to your life. If many of them revolve around unnecessary consumption, replace them with better ones.
You’re More Than a Consumer
The goal of this article is not to shame anyone, but to make you aware of how deeply rooted this hyper-consumerist behavior is in all of us. When you become aware of it, you can make positive changes in your consumption habits and not participate in the never-ending chase for more.
The culture of hyper-consumerism is all around us, but participating in it is still a choice. Choosing not to participate can help you improve your personal and financial well-being and rediscover your true values.
The folly of endless consumerism sends us on a wild goose-chase for happiness through materialism.Bryant H. McGill
What are your thoughts on hyper-consumerism? Would you recommend other ways to break the unconscious consumer behaviors? Let us know in the comments below!