Why a culture of consumerism leaves us feeling so empty

The foundation of our modern culture rests on consumerism. Through the compulsive accrual of goods and service, we are told that we can achieve The good life. Unfortunately, consumerism does not fulfill us. Otherwise, it would have by now. The economic engine of the world – which essentially means making the rich more prosperous – is fueled by the insatiability of consumerism. You are never fulfilled. First it is the iPhone 4, then 5 and after a year the next one, ad infinitum. All of us know that the incremental change between the two versions cannot be called ‘innovation’. The newer version does not change your life dramatically. Yes, there are some innovations that are true quantum leaps – such as the movement from the keypad to the touch screen. Or from a landline to a cellular phone. However, such innovations take time to come about and are never the product of changing one or two features.

Thanks to the combination of unfettered consumerism, aided by media and advertisement, we are told that we will find satisfaction when we buy the next product. Unfortunately, our societies have benchmarks also based on what we own. The need to belong to a tribe, means that we quickly come on board by purchasing those things that we do not truly need.

At any rate, this endless cycle leaves us feeling utterly empty. The culture of consumerism cannot fulfill the innate human need for meaning.

But how can meaning come about?

Meaning can only come about when we replace the culture of consumerism with the culture of creativity.

Creativity is an expression of oneself through a deep emotional understanding and true mastery of the skill through which the person expresses oneself. Creativity is not just the freedom to express whatever one wants. That would be akin to vomiting out one’s feelings though a tik tok video. No, creativity first has to be felt in the quiet realms of one’s emotions and mind. The emotion and thought that follow it must resonate with us. It must impact us emotionally. This then, must be combined with some levels of mastery of a skill – be it painting, sketching, engineering design, music or mathematics. All great masters have expressed this deep realization by combining powerful emotions with great skill.

Exhorting the importance of mastering skills, and criticizing those people who do not develop these skills, Robert Green in his fabulous book Mastery, has this to say:

The very concept of mastery has become denigrated, associated with something old-fashioned and even unpleasant. This shift in values is peculiar to our times. Anything that smacks of discipline or effort seems fussy and passé : what matters is the feeling behind the artwork, and any hint of craftsmanship or work violates this principle.

They come to accept that things are made cheaply and quickly. The idea that they might have to expend much effort to get what they want has been eroded by the proliferation of devices that do so much of the work for them, fostering the idea that they deserve all of this – that it is their inherent right ot have and to consume what they want

Robert Green. Mastery. Page 13. Profile Books. Indian Edition

Warning us of the dangers of not developing mastery in skills, he adds:

If you lose contact with this inner calling (to express your creativity), you can have some success in life, but eventually your lack of true desire catches up with you. Your work becomes mechanical. You come to live for leisure and immediate pleasures. You may grow frustrated and depressed, never realizing that the source of it is your alienation from your own creative potential.

Robert Green. Mastery. Page 13. Profile Books. Indian Edition

A culture of creativity involves spending our life seeking this deep resonance within ourselves and expressing it though our vocation. We shift the basis of our life from meaningless consumption to meaningful creativity. Instead of grabbing external objects to fulfill us, we reach out into the depths of our being to express what we have out into the world. It is a fundamental shift in the direction of energy. Instead of out to in, we go inside out.

When we begin to express ourselves creatively, something magical begins to happen. We are not charmed by the meaningless consumption of objects and entertainment. We engage with objects, people and so on – to understand how we could express ourselves through these objects. For instance, we pick up a movie not to fill our time by keeping us entertained, rather to see how we can engage with this movie by learning, by appreciating and later by thinking deeply about it. The external world and its objects become portals to embellish an already rich inner mental and emotional world.

Such a life brings us meaning. It satisfies us immensely. It prevents this constant feeling of emptiness and alienation that most people living in modern societies feel. Despite having the freedom to buy what one wants, to choose one’s own way of life, sexual orientation, place to live and so on, most people are alienated and depressed. Why is this? Wasn’t freedom supposed to bring contentment to human societies?

Unfortunately not. Unfettered Freedom (defined as the ability to do whatever one wants without any constraints) only enslaves man. Limitless choice leaves us empty and unfulfilled. Rather, we ought to define freedom as the ability to have a say on one’s inner thoughts and emotions despite not having infinite choice, despite having hard constraints.

Consumerism, is based on giving consumers the right to choose among a host of options. Think of a supermarket. Think of the choice that we have among cereals. But by definition, an unlimited choice that accentuates the unfettered need to consume, only leaves us feeling more empty.

Barry Schwartz in his wonderful book, The Paradox of Choice : Why less is more, puts it aptly:

“The existence of multiple alternatives makes it easy for us to imagine alternatives that don’t exist—alternatives that combine the attractive features of the ones that do exist. And to the extent that we engage our imaginations in this way, we will be even less satisfied with the alternative we end up choosing. So, once again, a greater variety of choices actually makes us feel worse.”

Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice : Why less is more

How can we then begin to transition from a culture of consumerism to a culture of creativity?

We can all begin by getting to know ourselves. Stop escaping your thoughts and emotions. Don’t run away to the world of objects, relationships, appointments, work and so on. Most of us use these as excuses to run away from our inner world. True freedom begins by recognizing the pain that many of us harbor knowingly or unknowingly. Face it. Learn to sit with your feelings and give them the space to exist within you. Do the same with worries and other bothersome thoughts. Often pain can be a great springboard for creativity. Many great artists and scientists produced their greatest work in the midst of great suffering (think of Beethoven).

Second, develop a serious hobby. Something that you do because you love to do it. Not because, you can post it online. Not because you can impress your friends or family. But because you love it. The true test of whether this is something we love or not, is when we get lost in the activity. When time stops. Think of the last time you read a great book, or the last time you painted something. Did time stop? Work on developing true mastery in this hobby.

Deprogram yourself by exiting all social networks. Minimize your on screen time. Reduce exposure to advertisements, as much as possible. And be selective of the company you keep. Do you mix with shallow people who engage in gossip about people, events and things. Or do you hang around with those people who truly inspire you? We need to make hard choices to be able to successfully deprogram ourselves from years of conditioning. This does not mean that we live hermit like. No, we engage in the world selectively, knowing that our time on this planet is limited. It is like going into a library and picking a book that suits us best. Yes, potentially there are many good books, all worthy of our attention. However, there is only so much we can read.
Therefore, be selective. And don’t waste your time on shallow people.

Finally, understand that consumerism can never fulfill you. The best way to experience this is by carefully recording the number of days that you retain your elevated sense of happiness after you bought that coveted object. You quickly realize that it vanishes within a few days or a few weeks. Observe this and bring your awareness to this deeply. This should awaken us from our hypnotic state of constant consumerism.

The way to a life of peace, contentment and meaning is to take back control. Take back the ability of corporations to control you and manipulate your emotions. Understand that no product or service can bring contentment to you. Yes, it can bring pleasure but not lasting meaning. Go inward and get acquainted with yourself. And through this space express yourself creatively through a mastered skill. Then, you make the transition from being a consumer to a creator. This is a life worth living.

Amber Fort. Jaipur, Rajasthan. 2021

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