It’s the New Year, a time when many of us make resolutions to stick to good habits. Many people will be committing to buy less and spend less this year for all manner of reasons, be they thrifty, green, minimalist, zero waste and or just plain skint! Today I’m going to explore the impact of our consumer culture. Some people even choose to enforce a ‘No Spend Year’. This often comes after people have been pursuing the Minimalist lifestyle for a while and they start to realise how meaningless all their stuff is. Some people have triggers for this, such as; having to box up all their possessions to move which really forces you to evaluate absolutely everything that you have.
The ‘No Spend Year’ concept is simply an extension of ‘Buy Nothing Day’ which falls on Black Friday each year. An academic from The University of Sussex, Dr Helga Dittmar has been exploring the effect of our consumer culture on our well-being and identity. She has been examining what she has termed as ‘a materialistic value orientation’ or ‘MVO’ where people pursue and strive to spend money on expensive possessions to gain status. Alongside this, people who do so also have beliefs that these things will lead to a better life and make us happy.
She and her team have conducted a meta-analysis of over 200 research studies, where they have looked at all the existing studies that link MVO to personal well-being. This is a very robust study of the evidence and in the case of the aforementioned, means that the results are conclusive. MVO is linked to lower personal well-being, lower subjective well-being, increased negative self-appraisal such as low self-esteem, mental health problems (in-particular depression and anxiety) and also poorer physical health. As you can see, the more MVO a person is, the worse they are affected and interestingly, there are no positive attributes according to this study!
The advantages of spending less are that you are more organised with your time, organising free or low cost activities to replace your previous expensive habits. Your health may benefit as you spend less on eating out, junk food and alcohol. It may even force you to find new things, that you may never have considered before.Buying things can easily become addictive behaviour, bringing along with it a pressure to spend more and more due to our consumer culture. We are constantly bombarded by advertising which tries to persuade us to buy yet more. Advertising has become totally pervasive in our culture, it’s literally everywhere these days – on TV, on radio, on the internet, on billboards, in magazines and newspapers and more! It partly plays to our fear of not wanting to miss out on something that everyone else has. But they also ply us with subtle messages – ‘buy this and you will be happy’, ‘buy this and your relationship will be better’, ‘buy this and you will achieve the perfect body’ and so on. Consumer culture will try to sell us everything. However, the research shows that buying all this stuff has actually made us less happy. Psycho-pathologies have increased since the 1930s.
Ultimately, stripping away all this stuff will expose the real you and what matters is that you are a good person, happy and positive in yourself. Having stuff won’t necessarily make people like you. The research demonstrated that the most crucial aspect in getting the balance right in your life, is getting the right orientation towards money and material things. Having things is not inherently bad, but you do not need to have certain things in life. You can use the MVO in either a positive or a negative way, for example- if you seek status, you might become depressed which leads you self-medicate and this is a bad use of MVO which leads to lower well-being. Conversely, highly treasured personal possessions, are a record of your history and tell a very personal story of who you are and who you’ve been over time, who you’re connected with, they are symbols of your personal relationships and are a form of self-expression – these can have a positive effect. The study particularly looked at life transitions, such as going into a nursing home in older age. In this situation, if you are allowed to take your treasured personal possessions, you are not only happier – you actually live longer!
So, in the light of all this you might want to consider taking up a musical instrument, singing in a choir, learning a new art or craft. I also think this research shows that we should make time for small items that can make a big difference to our well-being; like flowers, perfume or a good moisturiser. Of course, what brings joy to one person will be completely different for another but try to keep it simple – so no purchasing of a Ferrari! Consider purchasing items that allow you to spend time with others; like a meal out, or travelling together, or to see someone important.
This blog post was inspired by today’s episode of Women’s Hour on BBC Radio 4. If you are in the UK, you should be able to catch up on iPlayer. If you are interested in the work of Dr Helga Dittmar, then you can look here for more information or read her book on the topic. The author of this book was also featured in the podcast – Michelle McGagh – The No Spend Year: How I Spent Less and Lived More. I have added that book to my reading list!