Does all our new “stuff” make us happy?

by Christie Klimas

I enjoy the holiday season. Giving is a key component of this season, yet it seems that we’ve gone to an economic extreme (or perhaps I’ve just reached my personal tipping point). Commercials about using layaway to buy holiday gifts, pictures of presents piled high under trees and rushes for “hot” holiday items abound. While some start buying earlier, the “Black Friday” after Thanksgiving represents the time where balance sheets go from red to black for retailers. This consumptive surge has recently coincided with violence. Albeit still a statistical rarity, this year’s season marked a shopper spraying others with pepper spray to gain access to great deals in what is being described as “competitive shopping.”[i] The day after Christmas, there was a “ruckus” at the Mall of America.[ii] Discontent the day after a holiday season focused on gaining what we desire?

What is interesting is that what I most value often has no economic value. Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff states that “even the leading capitalist economies have failed to price public goods such as clean air and water effectively.” So, when I go to purchase a new gadget, say one of the new Apple products that create such consumer anticipation, it is difficult to judge the effect of my purchase on the environment that I so highly value. Was my new project made with rare earths mined in China where environmental regulations are lax?[iii] Since approximately 95% of rare earths come from China, the chances are good. Even if I want to move toward a more sustainable lifestyle and buy a plug-in hybrid car, I may still support environmentally destructive mining of rare earths in China; many green technologies also require rare earths.

As an aside, rare earths can be harvested with fewer environmental impacts. Indeed, the U.S. observes strict environmental policies on mining and other activities. These practices, however, lead to higher costs for rare earths. So by not incorporating the environmental impacts of mining in China into the cost of rare earth production, China has a competitive advantage in their market price of rare earths.

So, does our “stuff” make us happy? Is it worth the environmental degradation that accompanies it? Is my unease with holiday consumption due to increased blood sugar from excessive cookie consumption over the holidays or is there a real concern with our focus on material goods without a focus on accurately pricing the resources used as inputs for these goods? In other words, is there a problem with a disposable economy in a finite world? Well, it may be more than just my holiday sugar intake. Recent scientific studies show that higher levels of consumption are, at most, very weakly related to higher levels of subjective well-being.[iv] Subjective well-being refers to how positively or negatively a person experiences their own life, and it includes things such as positive emotional states, cognitive appraisals of one’s life satisfaction, and a person’s subjective sense that they are leading a meaningful life.[v] This is not to say that there is no relationship between income and happiness. Once per capita GDP rises to a point in which people are no longer struggling to meet basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter and healthcare, additional increases in overall national wealth don’t seem to make much of a difference in happiness (but this is, perhaps, the subject of another blog post).[vi] Indeed, I have recently read multiple newspaper articles on the need to simplify our lives. Articles on removing emotional and physical clutter seem to be featured in the Chicago Tribune on a regular basis. Also, collaborative consumption (sharing) is coming into vogue with networks like OhSoWe[vii], and Swaptree[viii]. Freecycle, where users offer items (for free) they no longer want to other listserve members to keep items from the landfill are also popular.

So, what’s an environmentally concerned citizen to do during this season of consumption? How can we fully enjoy this season of giving, promote happiness, and still try to reduce the impact on the environment? Well, one of my friends made truffles for family and friends[ix] (if you’re interested in recipes and organic farming, I highly recommend her blog). I requested quick-cook meals as holiday gifts and my parents made soup mixes by hand. My husband gave a donation in my name to support cacao famers in the Phillipines. I also received some great experiential gifts, like restaurant gift certificates. And in a previous year, my brother and sister-in-law gave us a year-long membership to the Shedd Aquarium, a gift we enjoyed all year (and many of our guests enjoyed the benefits of this pass as well). Maybe I’ve become a curmudgeon this year, but I wonder what a U.S. would look like without a consumption-based standard of happiness/well-being. Maybe I’ll ponder this over some chocolate – to remind me of the cacao project in the Phillipines…

[iv] Ahuvia, A.C. 2007. Wealth, consumption and happiness. In A. Lewis (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of psychology and economic behavior.

Ahuvia, A.C., Friedman, D. 1998. Income, consumption, and subjective well-being. Toward a composite macromarketing model. Journal of Macromarketing, 18: 153-168.

[v] Ahuvia, A. 2008. If money doesn’t make us happy, why do we act as if it does? Journal of Economic Psychology, 29: 491-507.



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11 responses to “Does all our new “stuff” make us happy?

  1. Jeff Tangel

    Thanks for a nice post Christie–I think happiness is an important discussion for us to be having. Perhaps curmudgeon can be re-branded to mean “materially sated” (or over-served!) and the word “consumer” can return to its wasteful, even sickly roots (consumption: tuberculosis). I am a father of an age at which the word applies regardless and like many my age every year I tell my kids I don’t want anything for Christmas (although I always come up with a list of books). This got me thinking that marketers in general are in the same boat as tobacco companies having to replace so many “dead” customers every year! May they search in vain…
    Curmudgeons United for a Sustainable (and happy) Future

    • Christie Klimas

      Thanks Jeff! I would have to say that entering parenthood has perhaps pushed me over the line. I’m amazed by all the toys available – yet completely unnecessary. I too hope that marketers either search in vain, or at least come up with was to promote social and environmental goods in a way I have yet to envision…

  2. Anna Lambropoulos

    Anna Lambropoulos, Senior, Environmental Studies
    I choose this blog because it is very relevant to behaviors I have been observing in our society regarding consumption.
    We live in a consumerist and capitalist society where a lot of our culture is built around buying goods frequently, and often these are unnecessary products that we can live without. Personally, I find the rate of consumption pretty disheartening because material goods are starting to become a part of one’s identity and this should not be what we base our happiness or identity around.
    Although, many people are aware that over-consumption has negative effects on the environment and is contributing to the depletion of natural resources we still continue engaging in these behaviors because they are so engrained in us. In response to this issue “green consumerism” is starting to expand but there are also issues associated with that. The example of the hybrid car mining rare earth in China for its production depicts how products are not always as sustainable as they are presented to be, which is why “green consumerism” is not always the best solution. Manufacturers of many products do not always account for the external cost of their products, which often involves environmentally degrading processes. Buying goods will not make people happy, perhaps temporary satisfaction will result but there are many issues that come along with over consumption of goods. I think it is important to practice restraint when shopping because it leads to over exhaustion of resources and environmental degradation, to leave us only wanting more once we begin the consumption cycle. Moreover, I think that collaborative consumption can be very beneficial to people and the environment. This blog talked about all the violence that occurred during the holiday season at various places, these types of behaviors couldn’t possibly make people happy, thus I agree that happiness of an individual is based on life experiences not possessions. This is one of the reasons why I do not give gifts and prefer not to receive gifts during the holidays, because I think there are many more important things to appreciate than the exchange of material goods.

  3. Tim Mazurek

    Tim Mazurek, Junior, Environmental Science
    I found this article to be relevant to my own struggles between being an environmentally conscious individual while still having an embedded desire for material “things” that I do not necessarily need.

    With the holiday memory imprints still visible in my mind I recall many of the crazy holiday shopping fiascoes that occurred this past season that I found myself shaking my head at. They are indeed a constant reminder of the mentality our nation has with an economy that revolves around constant consumption. This post brings up some valid yet saddening points about how the cost of products usually does not factor in the cost of the environment that was sacrificed for its production. I do not honestly know how far my purchases impact the environment and I do constantly have that question floating in my mind when every I purchase or receive gifts. I am left to wonder if a purchase can be justified if the cost of the environment is factored in or of the simple fact that it had any impact on the environment at all is reason enough not to make a purchase.

    I have indeed been attempting to cut down on my consumerism. This past holiday season my family and I greatly limited the amount of gifts exchanged. I have also taken up the habit of purchasing used clothing and items. This post has presented some great gift alternatives that can limit the influence of negative impacts on the environment, but growing up in this country has still left me in a state of wonder when I think about the future. Can we merge our society away from consumerism, or are we doomed to strip the world of every last resource to fulfill our material “needs?” As I attempt to wean myself off of habits of unnecessary consumption and rediscover what I really care about in life I am left in a state of unease as I think of the future spending habits of the world.

    • Christie Klimas

      I really hope that we will shift our focus to what we truly value in life. I prefer the optimistic outlook, but too wonder whether we can pull ourselves from our current path or whether this habit will break us.

  4. Jeff Hughes
    ENV 350

    It is refreshing to hear someone else with this opinion! This past Christmas I was planning on giving an organic gardening book to my sister. I happened to find the book online for free in a .pdf form, but hardly even for a minute did I consider giving a “link” as a gift to her. I ended up buying the hard copy. It made me question what the essence of a gift has become in a consumer culture; is it something intimate that benefits the giftee? or has a gift come to connote that the gifter must have suffered or worked for it, with intimacy and usefulness as a shadow of some unrealistic ideal?The taboo regarding giving a gift I did not work for, and the common practice of purchasing expensive, unnecessary clothes have me a wonderin’.

    As stated in “State of the World 2010”:
    “Indeed, if everyone lived like Americans, Earth could sustain only 1.4 billion people. At slightly lower consumption levels, though still high, the planet could support 2.1 billion people. But even at middle-income levels– the equivalent of what people in Jordan and Thailand earn on average today– Earth can sustain fewer people than are alive today. These numbers convey a reality that few want to confront in today’s world of 6.8 billion, modern consumption patterns– even at relatively basic levels– are not sustainable.”
    Americans are notoriously ignorant of international affairs- you need only look at some American vs. International Time magazine covers to confirm that: . If it is the latter definition of gift giving that is appropriate (gifter must have worked for it), then I enjoy the idea of donating in someone’s name, as you have for the Phillipine Cacao farmers. Both my grandparents and mother gave me similar gifts for development in Africa. This year I know I’ll be pushing my idealistic-22-year-old-fresh-outta-college morals on all my relatives and peers (haha). When you think about it, simply asking for a gift that didn’t hurt someone or something in the process of making it could be a great way to educate your peers about LCA and ecofootprint.

    • Christie Klimas

      I wonder if our social gift-giving has origins in the potlach – which involved a redistribution of community wealth to strengthen social ties. What we have and what we give is definitely tied to status in some cultures. I have to warn you – I can no longer consider myself fresh out of college, but I can’t seem to kick the habit of pushing my idealistic morals on all my relatives and peers – I wish you the same success.

      And the link to the covers of Time in different countries just saddens me. It’s why I never link to American news videos – BBC and Al Jazeera have much more relevant and thought-provoking international coverage.

  5. Erin Lusk

    Erin Lusk, Senior, Environmental Science
    First off, I would like to say that I really enjoyed this post. I think a lot of people feel this way about the holiday season. You provided some great alternatives for gifts and some enlightening points about how all this consumerism really affects our happiness as well as the environment.
    As Americans, most of us are born with the curse of consumerism. From an early age we are taught to want and that line of a “need” vs. a “want” begins to blur. Suddenly everything is a need. I need a new blazer because I have a job interview coming up. I need four kinds of cereal because I like a different kind depending on the day. We justify our wants as needs because that is what society has taught us to do. The more things we have, the more we can satisfy our wants and this in turn makes us happy (or so we think).
    The holiday season only amplifies our ability to justify our wants as needs. Companies make a killing on manipulating us to buy more. They spend so much on marketing research and figuring out just how to make us want to buy more that it is almost a science. And people spend spend spend with the notion that they are making themselves happy and making others happy.
    But the cheeriness of the holidays has worn off for me. I think as I get older I realize the anxiety that lies beneath the merry facade of the holidays. I feel the pressure of needing to buy in order to make my friends and family happy and this pressure stresses me out. Suddenly I have to meet deadlines to buy gifts and my bank account quickly dwindles. Shouldn’t I be relaxing? People need to get the latest toys and gadgets and clothes all because they think it will bring happiness. But standing in long lines and maxing out your credit card can really put a damper on all that happiness.
    Many people like buying presents, giving gifts and getting things. But I think deep down they realize that it does not make them happy. I like the point you made about how people love to consume, but they are also caught up in trying to de-clutter their lives. This is a major contradiction and I think trying to find this balance can drive some people crazy. All in all, it is important that people reflect on what they really find important in their lives and don’t let consumerism drive them into a depression while trying to buy happiness. Even more, people should reflect on what consumerism has done to us as a society and to the way that we view our relationship to natural resources.

    Thanks for the great post!

  6. Lucas Underys

    So, what’s an environmentally concerned citizen to do during this season of consumption? How can we fully enjoy this season of giving, promote happiness, and still try to reduce the impact on the environment?

    I would like to take some time to try to answer the above questions. For the last few years, my family has given up just giving presents during the season of Christmas. Instead, we have taken part in grab baskets, or white elephant giving. These two methods of gift giving do not detract from the whole giving experience. Instead, grab baskets, and white elephant gifts offer an environmentally friendly alternative.
    My family sets rules for the gifts. For example, I could not spend more than sixty dollars on a grab basket, or the white elephant gift must fit in a small gift bag.
    This year, my family also decided to make a donation in another family member’s name. I can see my family do this over again for this up coming Christmas season, because of the positive response my family had overall.

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