Breaking Free from the World of Excess
Getting richer is no longer making us happier—if it ever did. Depression, self-harm, and suicide are on the rise. Families are splitting up. Children are increasingly pressured and some desperately unhappy. Success and happiness are now conditioned by job status, by the cars we drive, the brands we wear and consume, the loyalty cards we are admitted into, the airlines we travel on, or the neighborhood we live in. Success is determined by our salary and what we buy with that salary. A successful marriage is defined by how much we provide for our spouse, or by how much money that spouse can leech from her husband. However much we have, we seem to want more. More wealth, more information, more food, more happiness, more possessions, and more luxury. We never seem to have enough regardless of the cost to ourselves and the world in which we reside. This desire for more things is facilitated by a sorry overstimulated, self-obsessed culture, in which our lower instincts are aroused, and the parts of our brain that help to make us civilized are diminished. The upshot is that we fight greedily over ever-decreasing resources, to feed our overstuffed, fat lives, gorging on junk infotainment, junk food, junk aspirations, and junk loyalty to grasping corporations. The overriding message of our current culture is we do not have all we need to be satisfied. It is now time to say enough.
There was a time not so long ago when people would receive the news once or twice a day then move on. The amount of news was limited by the length of the program, broadcast, or newspaper. Abstaining from the news was fairly simple: with very little effort one simply avoided it, and no one’s life felt the poorer for doing so. Then came cable television, twenty-four-hour news networks, the internet, and finally mobile phones. The news became a rolling, international, always updated goliath. It also became free and always accessible. Suddenly, almost overnight, it was possible to get news from any country, at any time, and anywhere. For many people their brain chemicals didn’t stand a chance. Every time a news outlet was updated we’d click on it, our brain would release a little bit of dopamine as a reward, we’d feel temporarily content, informed, happy even, then hunt for the next piece of news, never quite sure of the point of it all. To feed this addiction, and to gain advertising revenue, news outlets provided us with evermore tantalizing, yet pointless stories, often focussing upon celebrities or titillation. The result of this constant news is speculation, rumor mongering, nonstories, trivia, and a mind filled with exaggerated anxiety, heightened by regular reruns or updates of the same story. The stimulation of watching, checking, clicking, then repeat causes constant stress. Just thirty minutes a day of news checking leads to anxiety-related depression. In short, the news is driving us nuts, making us into addicts, and stopping us from doing anything purposeful. And it’s not just the news vying for our attention. There’s also information masquerading as knowledge, data, reviews, opinions, and constant commentary.
As we are drowning in information corporations are having to try ever harder to gain our attention, especially as one in five conventional advertisements no longer have any effect. Neuromarketing consultancies are now working with major corporations in order to obtain the little that is left of your concentration. They want to embed brand loyalty into your brain. For example, a team at Baylor University undertook MRI scans of people’s brains as they drank cola. When volunteers drank cola, any type of cola, out of a red can their hippocampus and prefrontal cortex lit up like a Christmas tree. This was due to the red can of Coca Cola being positively embedded in the part of the brain that regulates emotion and memory. All those hundreds of millions of dollars spent on “Coke is it!” and “It’s the real thing” campaigns during our youth have paid off handsomely—our brains have been subverted by scientifically honed advertising.
So we’re drowning in news and embedded advertising, and we still haven’t got to the 144 billion emails sent every single day. Nor the 27 billion WhatsApp messages. Nor the 500 million tweets, the 10 billion Facebook messages, and the 17 billion daily text messages. All of which lower IQ and concentration span. And then there’s blog posts and other regularly updated websites to consider. All this information and the mediums upon which it travels is bewildering, corrupting, and addicting. It all seemed so simple to avoid in the 1990s before the internet and cell phones entered our consciousness. All we had to do was take a baseball bat to the television and bin the newspaper.
In England, professors specializing in the psychology of appetite have noted that people are born with hardly any preset taste preferences—contrary to popular opinion, a desire for biryani is not innate. We are born with a slight preference for sweet items, the rest is learnt. Every time we experience a new taste our appetite adapts, and we quickly start to enjoy previously unfamiliar tastes. This science is not lost on food corporations. Just as marketers are using neuroscience to embed information and advertisements into our brain, similarly, companies are exploiting the brain’s reward centers in order to get us to eat more poor-quality, industrial food. Take the case of yogurt. Real yogurt contains just one ingredient: milk, to which is added bacteria. In contrast, the number of ingredients in YoCrunch Cookies n’ Cream Yogurt is unknowable, but there are at least eighteen ingredients, many of them unpronounceable, many of them sugars, and none of them present for reasons of nutrition; they are added to make a cheap, long-lasting, desirable product. This contrast between single ingredient natural food and modern industrial food can be found on every shelf of the supermarket. So why do many prefer YoCrunch over milk, or a Starbucks Vanilla Latte over a single estate coffee? The answer lies in the reward centers of our brain and how we are allowing them to be manipulated.
We like food and drink a great deal, we are wired for it, our stomachs and brains do not let us forget it. Recent studies have shown that the mere thought of Häagan-Dazs ice cream sets off the same pleasure centers in the brain as photos of crack cocaine pipes do for drug addicts—ladies seem to be especially affected. A team from the University of Michigan sought to examine this link between food and the brain’s pleasure centers. They discovered two hedonistic hotspots in the brain that control liking and wanting. However, the brain circuit for wanting exerts 30% more influence than the circuit for liking. Furthermore, these reward systems are intensified by conditioning, they are not just automatic. The problem is that we now live in a culture that has conditioned us to always want something. The YoCrunch Cookies n’ Cream Yogurt is a piece of worthless junk, but the hucksters, through marketing and advertisements, have successfully made us want it and other similar garbage. We can’t get enough of industrial, unhealthy, modern food, and the more we consume it the more we train our tastes to like it.
The results of this are catastrophic and plain for everyone to see. Tens of millions of people are now consigned to a fat, waddling, truncated life. Some 86% of Americans will be obese, not merely fat, by 2030. The overwhelming number of Westerners, and those following a modern, Western diet will be fat and blubbery in less than twenty years. We face an epidemic of diabetes, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, osteoarthritis, and heart disease, because we can’t stuff enough poor-quality food into our fat mouths. Healthcare systems, governments, and children of fat parents are going to struggle with this coming crisis. All of us, regardless of our current weight or health, would do well to avoid industrial food, the advertisements and places that promote it.
Our appetite for more and more is not just limited to more food and more information: we also have an appetite for more stuff. Mercedes and Porsche are two high end examples of what we strive for and desire. Our appetite for owning such products is whetted by the prospect of faster, more luxurious icons of pleasure—even if they steal life, wreck the environment, and divert wealth from needy causes to corporations. SUVs are another such example. For most people they are unnecessary and yet they are supremely popular. Sports stars and celebrities drive them, advertisements promote them, they seem to be sign of successful, powerful people. In reality, they raise the bar for ostentation, make the driver elevated like the chief monkey on the rock, and are dirty, machines that guzzle the very gas wars are fought over. The news creates a climate of danger on the roads, so we also buy them to feel safe, regardless of the environmental or aesthetic costs. It seems an oxymoron that they are associated with success.
The problem is after having purchased these desirable products we get a brief burst of pleasure, but ownership never quite delivers the promise of a happier life. At first there is the desire for an object or experience, then pleasure at ownership, then this feeling fades, only to be replaced by a yearning for yet another product or experience, and so the merry-go-round continues. Emory University researchers have analyzed and confirmed this phenomenon. Through brain scans they discovered that dopamine gets released when we first see a product and ponder buying it. But we only get this chemical high while we are anticipating a new product, not during the buying, and upon purchase our brain chemicals flatten in minutes. It is this fleeting feeling that advertisers tap into.
This seduction now means that one in twenty Americans suffer from buying addictions, with adverse effects such as debt. Their Canadian cousins are not far behind. But we apparently need to carry on buying, throwing away, then repeating, because if we don’t the economy is screwed, yet if we carry on consuming, the planet cannot support it—we seem to have gotten ourselves into a real mess.
In order to continue buying luxury items or eating to excess many people now work longer hours. Everyone seems to be incredibly busy all of the time, to the point where being busy with work, or being busier than everyone else is a sign of status. According to the Institute of Social and Economic Research in England, being busy, not leisured, is now the new badge of honor. Unfortunately, being busy and earning more money does not lead to greater happiness, less anxiety, or greater feelings of security. It’s enough to be halfway up the earnings ladder in any country, any higher does not lead to greater satisfaction, but it does lead to problems such as family breakdown and increased emphasis on material wealth. It also brings a greater emphasis on shallow luxury, positional goods and experiences—neither of which bring any meaningful fulfillment.
Perversely, we are not only less fulfilled, we are also more stressed and less happy with our materialism or earning power. Around 10% of Americans are clinically depressed; around 10–16% of their Canadian compatriots suffer from depression. These figures only deal with those who are diagnosed and being treated. They do not include anxiety, stress, or simply feeling unhappy. Nor does it include suicidal thoughts and self-harm. Fully one-quarter of Canadian deaths in the sixteen- to twenty-four-year-old age group are due to suicide. This despondency has led to the creation of a happiness industry. Books, magazines, blog posts extoll fantastic careers, amazing spouses, the cleverest children, beautiful holidays, and luxury cars. Images of beautiful women or of sophisticated alpha businessmen make us feel inadequate, and yet we still strive to imitate such people. Social media also makes a contribution. On Facebook, on Twitter, on blogs everyone has perfect lives, excellent productivity, great experiences, and wonderful photos or selfies to show how beautiful we are to the world—sadly religious leaders are no longer immune to this trend. For the most part it’s a lie, and shows the shallowness of much of contemporary culture in emphasizing material objects. So what to do?
We’re not happy, we’re seemingly never satisfied, we pollute ourselves with worthless, junk information, we’re veritable corporate zombies buying the next big branded thing. We love luxury, material possessions, big cars, big wives, alpha husbands, big travel experiences, and just buying more and more stupid stuff. We don’t need to torment ourselves over every Amazon review in order to choose the very best product. Our current culture obsesses with having everything new, fashionable, hipster, or disposable, rather than quality-made products. Such quality-made products may cost more in the short term, but will last for years, if not a lifetime, and stop us from worrying about having the next great thing.
With the shelving of old religious and moral frameworks, a thirst for personal possessions and pleasures is all that remains. To deliberately practice self-denial or plain, modest living seems a little too old-fashioned, a little too humble, a sign of being a loser. As our sense of purpose is focussed on pursuing more things or accumulating more wealth, it has turned us into ingrates, removing gratitude, contentment, and often generosity from our lives. Yet gratitude is inexhaustible and enhances quality of life in a way that the next consumer product never will. Generosity offers us contentment in a manner that hoarding wealth for the next big thing never does. Those people who believe they have enough and practice gratitude have higher levels of alertness, determination, optimism, and energy. According to the American Journal of Cardiology they are more motivated to exercise regularly. Gratitude is also associated with improved heart function and lower levels of materialism. In contrast, overwork, never being satisfied, wealth accumulation, overeating, and information overload leads to ill health, anxiety, mental illness, hard heartedness, and marital problems. We have enough to make us happy and comfortable. Travel is easy. Cleaning and washing are easy. We have warm houses, hot water, and easy-to-obtain quality food. We have every convenience we could possibly need. We don’t need more things. They will not make us more happy; they are not a sign of success. But we do need a different outlook, one that centers on moral principles, sees possessions and luxury as inconsequential, spends real-world time with our family and friends, has a life not committed to work and money, eats wholesome nonindustrialized food, gets off the information treadmill, and de-emphasizes job status. To all these material things it is time to say enough and to get back to what truly matters.