Last year I listened to a podcast that sort of rocked me. It was a conversation about happiness between the Dalai Lama, the chief rabbi of Britian, a Muslim scholar, and an Episcopal bishop. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said we have created a consumer society which has confused happiness with the thing that actually causes unhappiness. The consumer culture, he says, is “the most efficient system yet devised for the manufacture and distribution of unhappiness…The consumer society is constantly tempting us to spend money we don’t have, to buy things we don’t need, for the sake of a happiness that won’t last.” That talk led me to do something radical. I unsubscribed to all my email sale notices.
Unemployment, underemployment, medical bills, car trouble, house trouble, back trouble, trouble trouble. Those things have contributed to our being less than stellar consumers the past couple of years. I realized I was subscribed to approximately 403, 297 email newsletters, sales notifications, new product notifications, and handy tips. I read roughly 5% of those, so why was I still getting them? At first, I thought it was because I liked looking at pretty things. And a $269 copper saucepan from Williams Sonoma is, indeed, a pretty thing. Then I realized they were just making me miserable.
This house is an advertiser’s worst nightmare. We don’t have cable so that means our TV time mainly consists of PBS. Chuck and I hate the commercial radio stations in town so the tuners are set to NPR and WEVL, which is listener-supported radio. We do watch football which has become one big beer and razor commercial. So there’s that. I spend a lot of time online and I get several magazines so it’s not like I’m all what is this commercial you speak of? We were raised in families who owned family business, my husband works for a family business now, and we’d rather shop the little guy. We were in retail for a combined 368 years so we understand about promotional pricing, shelf displays, and gifts with purchase. We’re more concerned with value than low price and we will generally wait to get the thing we want rather than just getting something to make do. That’s why I’m wearing a 30-year-old coat of my dad’s. I’ve yet to find a coat with all the features I require, but that’s another story. I stopped all the flyers and direct mail I could about three years ago and we’re opted out of credit card solicitation. I don’t believe a car is the same thing as status and I do not have deeply held convictions about high octane gas, nor do I believe there could possibly be that much difference between the $15 windshield wipers and the $30 ones. I’ve been buying store brand everything almost exclusively for years now, and my friends have not once berated me on the quality of my Bolognese sauce due to inferior canned tomatoes.
You must understand that I’m not being that woman. I’m a First World Capitalist, make no mistake. I’m not saying giving up weekly emails from Crate and Barrel is the same as selling all my possessions and moving to a remote Andes village to work with blind llamas. I understand there are literally billions of people who would consider me the poster child for Ugly American Consumerism. What I am saying is that I seem to be much less miserable about the things I want that I don’t have, and I believe that to be because they aren’t flashing in front of my face all day. You know that saying that you can’t miss what you never had? It’s not true. That’s exactly what advertising does. You occasionally ache with love lost over that big screen TV you didn’t get. Admit it. We’ve all done it about something. Further, it’s ridiculous to say that we don’t need advertising. I believe we do mainly because I believe it to be an art form in its own way. Advertising touches something inside us just like Bach or a Calder mobile. And in their own ways, those things are advertising. Have you ever heard a song and then gone to buy the album? Have you ever seen an exhibit in a museum and then gone to the gift shop to buy a book about the artist?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since it’s the holiday season. (Let me just stop a minute and stress that HOLIDAY part. The season is more than just Christmas. We celebrated Thanksgiving and we will celebrate the new year. We have friends who celebrate Hanukkah, St. Nicholas Day, St. Lucia Day, Advent, Solstice, Kwanzaa, and Boxing Day. If this makes you angry, I’ll pray for you, but save the lecture. We can talk about putting the Christ back in Christmas as soon as you stop putting up a tree every year and tell your kids Santa’s not coming to town) I haven’t totally moved away from the orgy of holiday advertising, but I’m kind of living in the exurbs of it. I don’t know that I can say the silence has made me focus on the important part of the season. I’m not sure I still entirely understand what the important part of the season is. I know that I am released from the great pressure of BUY BUY BUY!! The past several years have made me view the holidays differently even before I went all UNSUBSCRIBE. No, that’s not true. I don’t view the holidays differently. What is important and what is good has changed for me regardless of what time of year it is.
Let me just tell you–in case you’re confused– that having the newest car, iPod, whatever does not fix a broken life. You’re not miserable because you don’t have an XBox or a Mercedes. You’re miserable because you’ve confused happiness with ownership. The one with me most toys doesn’t win. The credit card they were charged to does.