Re-Establishing Altruism As A Viable Social Norm

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Consumerism & Altruism

Many nations' material standard of living is now higher than ever. Production of material things has skyrocketed – but is still a way behind consumption, and further still behind demand. Does consumerism make people happier?

The citizens of the so-called 'developed nations' consume more products, live in bigger houses, use more consumer durables than those of the rest of the world. They have a higher material standard of living. However, social indicators such as family structure, suicide and crime levels tell a different story. Family breakdown, stress, loneliness and depression are much higher in the ‘developed’ countries. This is both a result of and a cause of increased economic activity, for many reasons. One of the main ones is that depressed people are encouraged to cheer themselves up by consuming.

In the past recreation was spent mainly in non-consumptive activities, such as appreciating nature or visiting friends, but this is harder in a deterioriating social and natural environment. Isolation is reinforced by industries that have sprung up to encourage indulgence in selfish consumption - whether of food, drugs, digital culture or other means of escapism. A paradox of our system of economics is that although this tendency is disasterous for the individuals concerned it is great for economic 'progress'.

In extreme cases such as suicide, such pathological consumption may harm rather help the economy. However, although such counterproductive consumption constitutes a downward spiral for the individuals involved, it represents a virtuous cycle for the economy, which benefits from increased levels of consumption and hence work from those concerned. Shopping is the USA’s most popular recreational activity.

Altruistic actions (almost by definition) boost well-being and happiness and so decrease depression and the associated habits of pathological consumption. Moreover, activity done out of love is often given away and so is part of the unseen economy, substituting for regular spending and reducing the size of the official economy.

Obesity is an obvious symptom of over-consumption. By 2000, two thirds of Americans were overweight1 - a proportion which is still rising. One can only speculate how this affects the self-esteem of those affected, in this world in which millions of people are literally starving. Overeating is widely known to be unhealthy, so one can see the obesity epidemic as evidence of how adept large organisations (i.e. companies) have become at manipulating individuals against their long term interests. Self-destructive overconsumption applies to many aspects of society, especially in 'developed' countries. In USA, most people devote hours every day consuming digital culture while families no longer spend time together in conversation2. Many countries are following this model, in spite of the unprecedented damage to family and community life3.

Organisations exploit the vulnerable by encouraging them to see themselves as consumers. This has lead to negative social cycles of selfish over-consumption, followed by depression and further stress. Adopting an attitude of altruism is a positive way to resist consumerism. Improving relationships with others helps people feel positive about themselves as people.

DownloadsTitleAuthor(s)        Date       Reference
 The Burden of Materialism Tim Madigan 2004-03-17Star-Telegram WWW
 Experts look for happiness in a buy-and-sell world Tim Madigan 2004-04-19Fort Worth Star-Telegram
 Are You Happy? Enough
 Native American Perspectives on Generosity Martin Brokenleg
 Spiritual Progress and Spiritual Wealth Chris Thompson 2005-02-27
 COS1: Happiness Machines Adam Curtis 2002-04-29BBC The Century of Self 1
 COS2: The Engineering of Consent Adam Curtis 2002-04-30BBC The Century of Self 2
 COS3: There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed Adam Curtis 2002-05-01BBC The Century of Self 3
 COS4: Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering Adam Curtis 2002-05-02BBC The Century of Self 4

[1] 64.5% according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1999-2000
[2] National time diary surveys conducted in 1997 by the Survey Research Center, University of Michigan
[3] In 2000, a YMCA poll of a representative sample of American teens found "Not having enough time together with parents" to be their top anxiety, named by 21% of those questioned.

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