The Consumption & Happiness Paradox (& Where to Focus Instead)

Just about every incremental purchase we make (of both goods and services), has the goal of boosting our happiness – whether we realize it or not.

  • The milkshake on the way to work to keep you company? Happiness.
  • The stylish new wardrobe to show off at work? Happiness.
  • The craft beer(s) with your buddies? Happiness.
  • The fancy overpriced haircut that we think makes us look a few years younger? Happiness.
  • The nostalgia from the concert tickets to see one of your favorite artists from your teenage years? Happiness.
  • The brand new SUV that you “just feel like” was made for you? Happiness.
  • The social media jealousy-inducing trip to Costa Rica? Happiness.

What’s wrong with a little more happiness in our lives, after all?

Here’s the thing – when consumption wins over our contentment, research repeatedly shows that the happiness we seek and sometimes gain from our consumption is fleeting. We get a very temporary boost of dopamine (if we’re lucky). Then, we quickly return to our natural state of being. Never quite being satiated, we seek out more. And, as evidenced by many uber wealthy consumers (actually, almost every consumer), “more” is never quite “enough”.

consumption and happiness

In fact, one could summarize the happiness promise that drives modern capitalistic economies simply as:

Work (time) -> money -> consumption of goods/services in the pursuit of happiness -> temporary dopamine boost -> return to normalcy -> repeat

Need evidence? Despite higher income levels, economic growth, and far more stuff than ever before, happiness levels in the United States have actually decreased over the last 40 years.

US happiness over time

What is the solution to this hedonic treadmill of chasing happiness through consumption that usually leads to lifestyle creep, the loss of time and money, and not much else?

Stop chasing happiness through consumption. Realize and acknowledge it for being the mirage that it is.

If you’re going to spend your money on purchases aside from life sustaining needs, focus instead on removing negatives from your life. For example:

  • If you wake up every morning with back pain, maybe it’s time to purchase a new mattress.
  • If you are suffering from depression/anxiety, spend money on therapy/doctors visits/medicine.
  • If you are overweight, invest in home exercise equipment and healthy food.
  • If your old computer keeps crashing on you and wasting your time with every reboot, buy a new computer.
  • If you love running or hiking, but it leaves your feet in pain, buy some new shoes.
  • If your dishwasher is broke, and you spend 15 minutes every night washing dishes, buy a new dishwasher or get your old one repaired.
  • If you are worried that your outdated bike will fall apart on the road, and it’s preventing you from biking, buy a newer bike.

If there are 5, 10, 20 of these negatives in your life, every single day, the additive negative effects can definitely put a damper on life. When done wisely, removing them can be a very powerful and efficient way to enhance your life.

Start there. Question every purchase. Reduce your cognitive load to limit purchase decisions in the first place.. And always practice gratitude. This simple shift in consumption framework/mindset can change everything.

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