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.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Gita says:

    That was supposed to be “plummeting.” Dang Word Press doesn’t let us go in and fix typos.

  2. Gita says:

    GREAT column. YES!
    You know how new credit card offers always come with a business reply envelope? About a year ago, I decided to start using them. Whenever I got an offer for a new card, I’d send them back a card of my own using their envelopes: playing cards. I’d pull out an old deck with brown edges and Maker’s Mark stains on them (we have Hearts tournaments, don’t ask) and pick a card — any card. Then off in the mail it went to Capital One, CitiBank, Chase, AMEX — whatever. At the rate of three offers per week, I went through a couple of decks pretty quick. It took almost 12 months for them to catch on and I NEVER get offers any more. (Of course, that could have something to do with my plymmeting financial resources.)

  3. LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE this post! It may be my all time favorite!

    And you seriously have a radio station whose call letters make you say EVIL? I love it.

    Like you, I vomit every time I see the Jared’s commercials this time of the year. Seriously, all they do is depress me. They remind me that I’m a 40 year old single woman with zero prospects of marriage in my foreseeable future and that depresses the hell out of me.

    On the one hand, I love the holidays because of what they represent to me (at least in my mind): time with the people I love, kindness, slowing down a little (although I am busier than ever this year and not much of it has anything to do with fun) and some good traditions. The sad part is that most of this doesn’t come to fruition or hasn’t in years.

    On the other hand, the holidays are the most depressing time of the year: pressure to have an over-the-top Christmas and New Year’s Eve experience, New Year’s Resolutions that never come to fruition, and family traditions and togetherness that went out the door sometime during the Reagan administration. I often wonder why there aren’t more suicides this time of the year. I’m certain it’s not just my family that’s completely dysfunctional and hasn’t spent a pleasant holiday together in over two decades.

Just spit it out, already!

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