Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Why We Consume"
As a contribution to this rich discussion, I would like to refer to two other thinkers in this area.
The first is Tibor Scitovsky, who came from Hungary to the US (via the UK) in the first half of the twentieth century. In his best known book, The Joyless Economy, Scitovsky observed that Unistations (we are not the only Americans, so this may be a better word) seemed to receive less enjoyment from their consumption than Europeans, and, to summarize very briefly, he pulled out two especially salient points. First, he discussed the opposition between familiarity and novelty. Happy humans require a good balance between these attributes in our lives; too much novelty keeps the adrenalin flowing and creates stress, while too much familiarity leads to boredom and a dulling of the senses. Second, he talked about short and long-term goals. If we are too addicted to immediate gratifications, we will not make the effort to do things—learning to play a musical instrument was an example he gave—that can result in more long-term satisfaction than is to be always gained by doing the things that are easy because they are familiar.
Peter Sterling quotes Whybrow on the idea that “the reason for our selfish, greedy, short-term, pleasure-seeking behaviors is that our frontal cortex fails to dominate the lower pleasure regions.” Sterling disputes this simple explanation, saying that the key to understanding our choices is the brain’s primary problem: how to compute efficiently—it uses the pleasure circuit to enhance learning through a pulse of dopamine that is experienced as pleasure. These pulses shrink as the reward becomes predictable—or, in Scitovsky’s terms, familiar.
Scitovsky saw that the culture of the US was organized to offer quick, instant pleasures—which, when they became boring, would result in a sense of emptiness, and he saw that the corporate culture seizes on that emptiness, and offers to fill it by an unsatisfactory diet of ever more of the same sort of thing. His solution was similar to that advanced by a number of contributors to this discussion: people won’t automatically learn what kinds of pleasures are the most enduring unless they are taught and acculturated (in schools and in their surroundings) to do the kinds of learning necessary for longer-lasting satisfactions.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi also came to the US from Hungary. In his early work (before he became renowned for his contributions to positive psychology and “flow”), he noted that there was a negative correlation between the amount of inanimate energy (such as fossil fuel) drawn by an individual in a particular activity and the pleasure taken in that activity. Consumerism as we know it—and as we fear it, because of the ecological as well as spiritual implications—emphasizes by and large those types of material and other (e.g., water-skiing) consumption that depend on large amounts of inanimate energy.
Both of these thinkers emphasized the role of learning. In other times or other cultures, learning has meant learning how other people do things—and if they do things that require effort, and where the pay-off is not immediate, then that is what we also learn. Today, much learning results from the media and other effects of corporate capitalism. (School examples are Coca-Cola vending machines in cafeterias and the cuts to arts programs necessitated by the squeezing of governments’ resources and roles.) Learning something different from what the producers want us to learn (so that we will consume what they produce) requires an extra effort—a pushback against a powerful force. The brain’s chemistry and make-up may, as Sterling suggests, operate on the side of that force; a biochemical tendency to be dissatisfied with the short-term pleasures the culture offers may cause us to grasp for ever more of what this culture teaches us will fill our emptiness. This idea is a useful addition to our understanding; it helps to see the uphill battle we face in seeking to promote a more satisfying kind of learning. But I do not think it argues against the fact that the essence of our way out of the consumerist mess must be via education, formal and informal.
Finally, several discussants have noted that there is a class-tinged edge to how many of us define the more long-term satisfying pursuit. I am not convinced that playing music is more upper-class than water-skiing—the latter requires more financial as well as energy resources, and the former has attracted people from all classes throughout most of human history. This is an important discussion, but I won’t attempt to pursue it further here.