It’s that time of year. The time where we become exhausted from running from store to store, buying more things we don’t need, or won’t use after we open them.
Explicitly, we all know that we live in a consumer culture, and we buy far too much stuff. Unfortunately, knowing this doesn’t stop us. Unless we are being conscientious about our money — and most of us aren’t — we don’t particularly pay attention to our buying behavior. We think of our spending habits as harmless, or, at best, view our spending in terms of money alone. But, what if our buying behavior affects more than just our bank accounts? What if it affects our health, and our happiness?
This question is only now being scientifically explored, thanks to those studying consumer behavior. There are, undoubtedly, a number of factors that contribute to our unnecessary consumption. Many may have to due with our very nature, or evolutionary hardwiring. After all, from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes quite a bit of sense to want to have a lot of stuff. Stockpiling, storing, and saving things is a way to ensure our future survival. We evolved in a dangerous and changing world, where a fruitless harvest or bad hunt foretold demise. This hardwiring works against us when we buy things. Instead of asking, “would this product make me happier”, we ask, “…could I ever use this”, assuming we ask anything at all. Much of the time we don’t even think about our purchases. We haphazardly navigate up and down tortuous aisles, grabbing all that is on sale, or is “too good to pass up”. Our hoarder-like nature only gets worse from living in a consumer culture. I’ll spare you the hippie-esque, pseudo-intellectual tirade about logos, success metrics, social media, iPhone apps, business objectives, consumer appeal, consumer retention, viral marketing, emotional economizing, greenlining, greenwashing, paradigm shifts, branding… it would be too much. It is too much.
So, how do we escape it? We are, in a way, addicted to buying stuff. It isn’t enough for us to simply think, “I should buy less”, or “I should only buy what makes me happy”. We have to become diligent and active non-buyers, instead of lazy, passive consumers.
To begin, we can start by tallying up how much stuff we have, and how much of it we don’t need. If, in the midst of this process, you find yourself asking, “Why do I have so much stuff?”, then you are on the right track. Alternatively, we can look at what we own and ask, “Does this really affect my happiness?” In order to answer this question effectively, we have to understand what makes us happy, and why. For example, you might think a big wardrobe, with lots of clothes to choose from, would make you happier. But, there is evidence to suggest that this isn’t the case. Having lots of available options, whether it’s clothes, ice cream flavors, or retirement plans, actually “paralyzes [us] into indecision”, to quote consumer psychologist Barry Schwartz. Not only do we become indecisive, but when we finally do choose, we are often unhappy or dissatisfied with our choice. “The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything about the option that you chose”, says Schwartz.
Additionally, we have to recognize that our buying behavior is habitual, and routine. We have to work to break this routine — this addiction — of tireless consumption. There are many ways to start doing this, but a good way to begin is to get rid of what you don’t need. If you haven’t used, acknowledged, or appreciated a particular thing you own in six months or more, then get rid of it. If you are feeling ambitious, go with three months. Further, you can give yourself a minimalist challenge of owning 100 items or less, or whatever number you feel would put you on the appropriate minimal path.
Next, turn to your spending habits. Don’t purchase things on a whim. Don’t buy stuff to fulfill some sort of social function, (e.g., shopping with friends), or an emotional need, (e.g., you are bored and have nothing to do). If you feel like you should buy something, (apart from food), wait a few days and see if you still really want it. After that, wait a week, or a month. If you still feel as if you can’t live without it, consider purchasing it.
Some people are quite ahead of the rest of this in this respect, and they aren’t Zen Buddhists or austere Christian Orthodox monks. They are regular folks who are sick of having so much garbage, and who want to feel real attachment to the things they own. Our world, for better or worse, is one of mass production, cheap labor, and disposable incomes. This has caused us to lose touch with our possessions. Rarely do we look at our purchases as special, or meaningful. If, however, we decide to own less than 100 items, our possessions gain new meaning. We begin to think of what we own as truly ours, rather than some random thing we grabbed off a shelf somewhere. Minimalism is not about being anti-materialistic. On the contrary, its about finding renewed life and spirit in our possessions, and being proud of what we own.