Black Friday. Mall madness. Deadly stampedes of Walmart shoppers determined to get half off a Samsung television set. Black Friday is a carousal of consumption. Companies flood our inboxes with sales (20% off! 30% off! 50% off!), encouraging us to splurge in the name of “saving” money. Afraid of missing out on a “once-in-a-lifetime” deal, we buy far more than we actually need.
Why are we so consumed with consumption?
Because we think things will bring us happiness.
In his clever The Consolations of Philosophy, continually charming Alain de Botton uses the wisdom of ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus to refute this deluded, distinctly American notion. According to Epicurus, only three things are absolutely essential to happiness: thought, freedom and friendship.
Despite the hedonistic associations of his name, Epicurus didn’t support the reckless pursuit of pleasure. Though he appreciated the finer things in life, he also understood material wealth wasn’t necessary. To be satisfied, one only needed enough money to provide for the basic requirements of living.
Before you excessively spend this Black Friday, Botton suggests you seriously consider a few questions: could you buy a Chanel bag or an expensive cashmere sweater and still not be happy? Conversely, could you still experience some measure of satisfaction if you never procured the much-lusted after object?
When you ask yourself these questions, Botton contends, you’ll usually find the worldly objects you crave are not prerequisites for happiness. If— after years of yearning— you finally acquire a Gucci 1961 Jackie bag, you will still be miserable if you and your husband are constantly fighting. Similarly, a supremely soft cashmere sweater will offer little consolation if your father just had a heart attack. You can be just as melancholic on a sun-soaked beach in the Caribbean as you are on a gloomy day in your cramped London apartment. Lavish things and splendid surroundings do not guarantee contentment.
But why, if material objects cannot promise happiness, do we obsess about their attainment? Why do we make making money the aim of our existence?
According to Botton, we seek solutions for spiritual problems in material objects. Rather than organize our heads, we buy Tupperware to organize our cabinets. Rather than pick up the phone and have a vulnerable conversation with a friend, we treat ourselves to a pair of cat eye sunglasses from Yves Saint Laurent. Rather than dedicate the time to reflect and identify our life’s purpose, we trade genuine fulfillment for fleeting gratification. We mindlessly swipe our credit cards for useless junk just to feel the buzz of a dopamine hit and momentarily escape the utter meaninglessness of our existence. It’s no coincidence that the phrase “retail therapy” has entered our language: in the 21st century, we believe the cure to our psychological ills can be bought on the free market.
In many ways, capitalism depends on us misunderstanding our own needs. Our most fundamental needs are for love, for friendship, for freedom, for purpose, for meaning. However, priceless concepts like connection and camaraderie can’t be purchased at Bloomingdales for 20% off on Black Friday.
And therein lies the problem: we cannot buy what we want.
Therefore, companies must trick us into buying their products. By subliminally appealing to our unconscious needs, they convince us to shop.
When we buy a tube of glamorous red rouge, for instance, we’re buying a promise: to be beautiful and, therefore, loved/admired/heard/seen.
Or say we come across an advertisement that depicts a celebratory scene of attractive 20-somethings clinking champagne glasses in the city. We subconsciously hear one message: if we drink this particular brand of bubbly, we’ll finally find the companionship we crave.
But we must not believe the lies of advertising. Love cannot be located in lipstick and friendship cannot be found in a bottle of champagne. To live well, we must differentiate our real from our invented needs. We don’t need a Birkin or elegant, extravagant home furnishings. But we do require a good book and a confidant who listens to us, makes us laugh and helps us not take life too seriously.