A lot of people buy things for the sake of it, stuff they don’t need or even particularly want and in many cases won’t use, as a salve for boredom or anxiety or insecurity.
On the whole, consumer expenditures, which encompass both necessity spending (rent, gas, groceries) and discretionary spending (whatever you ordered from an Instagram ad after three glasses of happy-hour wine last Friday), account for about 70 percent of the country’s economy, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Shopping has been marketed as a civic responsibility in America for more than a century. According to Tim Kasser, a psychologist and professor emeritus at Knox College who has spent decades studying materialism, the word citizen has slowly come to be replaced by the word consumer in newspapers and books.
Kasser points out that a person’s propensity toward materialism—which his research defines as “a set of values and goals focused on wealth, possessions, image, and status”—tends to increase when they’re feeling threatened, insecure, or unsure of themselves. Research has shown that society-level threats can reproduce that effect at population scale.
The structure of American consumerism ensures that buying more of whatever sounds good in the moment is the primary way most people are able to cope with uncertainty. “The logic of the system requires people to come to believe that what’s important in life is to make a lot of money and to buy a lot of stuff,” Kasser told me. Once you do, “it’s very difficult to change your beliefs.”
As it stands, America’s central organizing principle is thoughtless consumption, acquiring things for yourself and letting everyone else pick over what you left behind on the shelves. You can decide you don’t like that. You can decide that people—your family, your friends, the people in your community, the port truckers and Amazon warehouse workers running themselves ragged—are more important to you than another box of miscellaneous stuff.
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