Over the last 30-40 years our culture has seen a subtle shift, from one where we were more concerned about paying for every day items and taking care of every day tasks, to one that is never stationary or content – always obsessed with the next big thing.
We want bigger and better, and we want it now. Oh, and put it on the credit card.
The latest iPad, the newest luxury vehicle or the latest designer labels all catch our interest, and we really can’t get away from them wherever we look. On the radio, on TV, in magazines and online. To some degree, consumerism runs rampant in our culture.
Why are we continuously looking for the next big thing? Because on some level I think that we think that they can help to fulfill a deep seated need in our lives. The need to feel happy, to feel important or to have some sort of meaning in our lives. Having that new car says something about us – that we’re successful or important. Having those new clothes does something similar – it tells others that we care about our appearance, and that we’re well off enough to afford them.
In the end, those “things” in our lives really can’t make us happy or content. They present a moving target, one that we can never quite hit. We buy that new car, but as soon as we do a newer better one comes out. We buy the iPad, but as soon as we do, iPad 2 comes out with new features!
Shift In Consumerism
A study was done that looked at magazine ads from the fifties and sixties, and then ads from the same magazines today. They found that in the fifties those magazines showed a lot more ads for household or lower end products. The same magazines today, even though they were focused on the same demographics, had a lot more ads for luxury items like cars, and expensive vacations. In other words, the magazines that in the past were showing ads focused towards a middle income demographic, even though they were still focused towards that same demographic – the products being featured were those that might better be suited towards people with higher incomes.
The thing is, people with low to middle incomes are probably still buying a lot of those luxury products, even though they can’t afford them. Those luxury items represent an idea that people are striving for, things they think can make them happy or successful to others. They’re putting the cars on long term payment plans, and putting the designer duds on the credit card.
Consumerism Leaves You With An Empty Feeling
Far too many of us in this nation are living with our head in sand, believing that we can live highly leveraged luxury lifestyles – and that it will allow us to be happier. The problem is that in 99% of the cases the deficit spending that we’re engaging in will help us to feel good – but it’s only a sugar rush that quickly fades.
We need to be more in tune with what our true situations are. We need to have a realistic idea of what our true means are, and what kind of a lifestyle we can truly afford with those means, while still saving and planning ahead for our future.
A recent guest post on GetRichSlowly.org inspired this post – and touched on the idea of having realistic expectations leading to greater happiness:
Psychologists recently discovered that having a realistic expectation of financial means and lifestyle pays untold dividends toward greater well-being and happiness. To the extent that there is greater discrepancy between financial reality and financial expectations (a.k.a. financial desire discrepancy [PDF]), there’s greater risk to your sense of well-being. Put another way, being satisfied with what you have will reap invaluable rewards. Being dissatisfied with what you have, and making a point of acquiring more, is the quickest way to dissatisfaction in life
So in other words, far too often people will have unrealistic expectations of what kind of a lifestyle they can afford, and what kind of a lifestyle they deserve. When the credit house of cards comes falling down, it leaves them with an empty feeling, and a sense of what they want still being just out of reach.
Researchers found that those who were intrinsically motivated, and who didn’t need the acceptance or approval of others outside of themselves, were much happier in the long run because they were much more in touch with their core values, and what makes them happy. Those who were extrinsically motivated, and who looked to outside entities for approval and happiness in the long run were much unhappier.
Biblical Focus On Contentment
What does the Bible have to say about happiness, contentment and consumerism? In essence, it says that we need to learn how to be content, no matter what our material circumstances – because contentment doesn’t come from things. True contentment can only come through a personal relationship with Christ.
I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. Philippians 4:11-13
It goes on to talk about how the material things of this world are just empty, and that the wants and desires that so many of us have can end up being harmful and leading to negative consequences.
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.1 Timothy 6:6-11
We brought nothing into this world, and we can take nothing out of it, and the material things beyond our basic necessities like food and clothing are not necessary for contentment. In fact in many cases having those things – and wanting more – can lead to “many griefs”. Instead we’re encouraged to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness”. In other words, be motivated by your core values, and live a selfless, serving lifestyle, not one where you’re constantly striving selfishly for the next material possession or accolades from the people in your life.
Seeking and finding contentment is a serious problem. But how can we truly find it? For me I believe it is only found by having a firm foundation and core values in my life, knowing that I have a Lord and Savior who loves me – eternally. That gives a very strong sense of contentment and happiness inside that I believe can’t be shaken by anything externally. I also find it by seeking to serve and love others in my life.
How can we pursue a serving lifestyle that breeds contentment and happiness?
How about this week we all turn off the outside influences – the TV, magazines and internet consumerism – and instead seek out opportunities to help others whether it is through volunteering at a local food shelf, or packing meals for the hungry in foreign countries. Look for opportunities to help and serve others, instead of thinking about the next big thing we’re going to buy. I really do believe that it will help you to live a happier more fulfilled life.
What do you think about the ideas of contentment, consumerism and happiness that I’ve discussed in this post? Do you agree or disagree with the things I’ve said here? Tell me your thoughts in the comments.
Excellent points. I know what I struggle with personally is where is the line drawn between ambition and contentment. At what point does it become greed. We all know the parable of the talents. We are supposed to be good stewards and maximize what God has given us but at the same time be content. It is a difficult line to walk sometimes. It is definetly easy to get sucked into the cycle of consumerism. The effect of this type of culture is the line between a need and a want has been blured.
Jon - Free Money Wisdom says
Peter–great points. I just quoted 1 Timothy 6 recently. One can be sucked into the consumerist treadmill if one isn’t careful! I have found that when you are content with where God has you “things” become peripheral. They are enjoyable, but they are put into their proper place. After all, no one drags a hearse behind their coffin when they die! HE is the only one that fills that void … finding your identity in “stuff” is not only dangerous but will ultimately never fulfill that God shaped void.