I was in a mall in the city — one of the good ones with all the trendy and high-end stores. Despite my prior excitement to go there, I couldn’t help but think that it wasn’t living up to my expectations. Instead of finding those few quality gems that I had envisioned adding to my wardrobe, I was overwhelmed by the quantity and loudness of it all. There were rows upon rows of tops, pants, and shoes; posters and televisions displaying ads for perfume, purses, and jewelry; and people bustling all around carrying armfuls of shopping bags.
My head was aching. Did I really want or need those shoes? Did I just want them because they looked so cute on the mannequin and they were on sale? Did I want them because everyone else had six shopping bags and I had yet to acquire one? Did I want them because I had a tough week and I thought they'd help brighten my spirit?
This experience in the mall was the first time I realized how dangerous the pull of materialism can be. It entices us to buy material goods with the promise of filling some void within — a void that nothing material can ever fill. This idea is illustrated by a quote from an article I read recently written by George Monbiot for The Guardian. It was entitled, Materialism: A System That Eats Us From the Inside Out.
The article is a beautiful lament on our culture's current preoccupation with materialism. The quote is as follows:
The pictures are, of course, intended to incite envy. They reek instead of desperation. The young men and women seem lost in their designer clothes, dwarfed and dehumanised by their possessions, as if ownership has gone into reverse. A girl's head barely emerges from the haul of Chanel, Dior and Hermes shopping bags she has piled on her vast bed. It's captioned "shoppy shoppy" and "#goldrush", but a photograph whose purpose is to illustrate plenty seems instead to depict a void. She's alone with her bags and her image in the mirror, in a scene that seems saturated with despair.
The pictures mentioned in the quote are those posted on a Tumblr blog called Rich Kids of Instagram. Yes, apparently that's a thing.
The article goes on to state that:
There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness. But research conducted over the past few years seems to show causation. For example, a series of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. As they become less materialistic, it rises.
While the prospect of filling a void with material things seems ridiculous when put into words, the pull of materialism is powerful. It bombards us relentlessly and is even condoned and embraced by today’s society. Sometimes it's hard to avoid its influence. After all, buying some stuff is certainly much easier than addressing the real issues or even acknowledging that they exist at all.
But isn’t feeling something and having original, uninfluenced thoughts — even if unenjoyable — better than being controlled and manipulated by material culture or anything, really? Isn't empathizing and engaging with others and being genuinely happy better than being, as Monbiot states, "a Rolex short of contentment?" If not, what has happened to us?