The reigning policy orientation today holds that greater economic growth leads to greater wellbeing or prosperity. So for the last five decades the pursuit of economic growth has been the single most important policy goal across the world. The global economy is almost five times the size it was fifty years ago. At the individual level, higher income will increase wellbeing or lead to prosperity, according to this view. Prosperity means a higher salary, a big house in a posh locality, an expensive and a latest model car, and holidays in exotic places. What is apparent today is prosperity is understood in economic terms with continual rise in national and global economic output, with a corresponding increase in people’s income. This economic ideology has assumed the status of a modern state religion.
Prosperity, however, is not synonymous with wealth or income. Greater prosperity is not the same as economic growth or rise in income. “To prosper” (from Latin word prosperus) means “to flourish”, “to enjoy vigorous and healthy growth”. Prosperity means to flourish physically, psychologically, socially and spiritually. It does not mean to succeed in material terms or to be successful financially. Although wealth is an element in prosperity, material wealth does not necessarily indicate a happy and fulfilled life, and emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Most of the time the expensive material things we surround ourselves with convey a void in life and a craving for acceptance, recognition and identity − the basic human needs. One may have all the money, yet live with the nagging feeling of emptiness, restlessness and even boredom. A void that can not be filled with wealth and material things.
But in the present day highly unequal societies the importance of income and wealth in prosperity or wellbeing is played out through relative effects. Income disparities indicate status differences. So what matters is having more income and wealth than those around us. At times it gives power and authority. Income and wealth also give access to “status goods” that is very important in establishing one’s social standing. Because in unequal societies status competition is intense and we are sensitive to how we are perceived or judged by others. Robert Frank’s books Luxury Fever or Falling Behind show how consumption is about status competition. People spend thousands of rupees on accessories such as handbags and sunglasses with the right labels to make statements about themselves. It is not that they want to spend so much of money on mere “things.” Money is spent on the value attached to some of the consumer goods in society. Because we experience ourselves through each other’s eyes. That is the reason for right labels, designer clothes, latest model cars and branded accessories. Consumer goods are not mere stuff, but “language” in social relationships. Through things we convey with one another our identity, social status, social affiliation and feelings – through giving and receiving gifts − for one another. Consumer goods play a role in our lives that goes way beyond their material functionality. That is why they continue to captivate us even beyond the point of usefulness.
Consumerism is powerful. We continue to invent or reinvent our social identity and status through accumulation of latest “status goods” that have arrived in market. Novelty carries with it important information about status. Companies continue to stuff market with new “status goods” and promote them by hiring popular brand ambassadors to entice consumers to emulate these popular figures in order to reposition themselves on the social ladder. Thus, there is a direct correlation between restless desire for new consumer goods and their continual production by corporate companies. The relentless pursuit for novelty creates anxiety, which in turn affects physical, psychological and spiritual wellbeing.
Consumerism interferes with the workings of society by replacing the normal common sense desire for an adequate supply of life’s necessities, community life, a stable family and healthy relationships with an artificial ongoing and insatiable quest for things and the money to buy them, with little regard for the true utility of what is bought. An intended consequence of this, promoted by those who profit from consumerism, is to accelerate the discarding of the old, either because of lack of durability or a change in fashion. This makes people to work for long hours to have more income to place themselves in a conspicuous position in the social hierarchy through acquiring latest consumer appliances, accessories and fashions. This is a vicious cycle. People have less time because they work more. They work more because they want more to maintain a higher standard of living. That means, as a society we are choosing MONEY over TIME. It creates anxiety and stress, and undermines physical and mental health and family relationships. Spending time with spouse and children, and having rest and relaxation become secondary to the chasing of mirage called social status and identity in a consumer society. The moment we think we have got it, entrepreneur invents new consumer goods and with that the social identity and status will change. We will never arrive there in our life time, because it is a MIRAGE.
The wisdom of the old says, “I made great works; I built houses, and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines. So I became great…” (Ecclesiastes 2.4-9). He asks, “What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” and declares that it is like “a chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1.2; 2.11).
Consumerism numbs us and we live in delusion that it gives “fruits of life” − fruits that satisfy basic human needs and sustain human life. When common sense prevails we will realize what all important things we have lost in life like the joy of spending time with spouse, children and friends, and physical and mental health in rest and relaxation.
Surely material goods are essential to meet our basic needs: food, clothing and shelter. In order to buy food, clothing, housing and other basic needs money is required. However, once a person’s basic needs are met, money takes on a different meaning. Money brings happiness only insofar as it lifts people out of poverty. Once that level is crossed, the link between material wealth and wellbeing and happiness is very thin. Psychological studies show that more income and more consumer goods do not lead to lasting gains in our sense of wellbeing or satisfaction in our life. Psychologist Tim Kasser highlights what he calls the high price of materialism. According to him, materialistic values such as popularity, image and financial success are psychologically opposed to intrinsic values like – self-acceptance, affiliation and a sense of belonging to a community. He further says that people with higher intrinsic values are happier than those with materialistic values.
Take, for example, the people of the Scandinavian countries: Sweden and Denmark. The people of these countries have consistently been found to be among the happiest in the world. According to the same studies the people of Costa Rica are happier that the Scandinavians, although the per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of Costa Rica is only one-fourth that of Sweden and Denmark.
Similarly, Guatemalans are happier than those of the United States, despite its low income level than that of the latter. So there is hardly any correlation between levels of wealth and levels of happiness and wellbeing, once poverty level is crossed. Economic growth and higher incomes in the US are supposed to deliver prosperity − that, at least, is the conventional wisdom. But the ground reality does not support the conventional view. In the US, the economic super power, the rates of depression, obesity, heart attacks, divorces, and suicides have skyrocketed. Antidepressants are now the most commonly prescribed drugs. The nation consumes two-thirds of the global market for drugs prescribed to combat chronic sadness and hopelessness. One study found that today the average American child experiences higher levels of anxiety than did the average child under psychiatric care in the 1950s.
After analyzing more than 150 studies on wealth and happiness, Diener and Martin Seligman, two of the world’s top experts on the science of happiness, wrote: ”Although economic output has risen steeply over the past decades, there has been no rise in life satisfaction… and there has been a substantial increase in depression and distrust.”
Inequality affects our ability to trust and our sense that we are part of a community. Thus, it affects social relations, and promotes individualism and self-centeredness. People become insensitive to the needs of others. “Inequality takes the form of dominance hierarchies, based on power and coercion and privileged access to resources…That’s why power, status and wealth all go together at the top and why powerlessness, hunger and poverty go together at the bottom.”
In egalitarian societies, where there is a strong community life, there is more trust, caring, sharing and people give higher priority to common good. They experience greater joy and satisfaction when they share and work together for common good. In such societies there is less importance to social status, and so less positional competition. That means, less importance for “status goods”. This reduces anxiety, and enhances the quality of life. This is what prosperity means. Tim Jackson, Economics Commissioner, Sustainable Development Commission, says, “Prosperity goes beyond material pleasures. It transcends material concerns. It resides in the quality of our lives and in the health and happiness of our families. It is present in the strength of our relationships and our trust in the community. It is evidenced by our satisfaction at work and our sense of shared meaning and purpose. It hangs on our potential to participate fully in the life of society. Prosperity consists in our ability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological limits of a finite planet.”1