The Expensive Double-Edged Sword: Pursuing Meaning in a Consumerist World

Words by Emily Fuller

I am no stranger to the trap of consumerism, and all of its promise of romance and glimmer for your life. From so early, we are taught that in order to attain happiness and contentment we must be in pursuit of the endless array of products that are marketed tantalisingly before us. This is a precarious tightrope I always struggle to balance upon, tipping both ways constantly. Whilst I do not consider myself to be overly materialistic, I am still very much aware of the money I do spend on things like the creamy comfort of coffee, and on my ever-accumulating stash of good reads. I justify them, these purchases for me act as a matchstick of cultural experience that will spark my happiness, and alight my mental growth – but at the end of the day they are still products I consume, and hence I am ensnared by the immanency of the material world. Believe me, I am not an enthusiast of the overt commercialisation perpetuated by the corporate giants of our world – whether that be within the fashion or automobile industry. However, I have learnt that consumerism leaks into essentially everything we do – from what we eat, to what we read, to what we experience. We are constantly shamed by it and yet we remain magnetised to the very notion of consuming as a society, so why do we continue to buy and buy and buy?

The commodification of experience is something largely prevalent that we do not often acknowledge. The movement of romanticism has been a colossal motivator in the material world, as romanticism and consumerism has consummated a union that has conceived an infinite market of experiences – particularly in relation to the tourism industry. Today, Paris is not a city. Rather, it is one of the most romantic experiences one can encounter in their life – filled with art, baguettes and berets. India is instead a melting pot of vivacious colours, aromatic spice, yoga practices and temple visits, rather than it is a country. In modern travel terms, these cultural spaces are sold as experiences in which we consume in desperate hope for widening our social and cultural horizons, forming us into a more worldly soul, and generally increasing our happiness. Whilst travellers do not necessarily conform to the consumption of physical objects such as phones or cars, they instead purchase sacred churches, the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, or lions on an African safari. This is not particularly a negative critique on travelling, as we are all responsible for it as it becomes an integral part of the travel experience – but it is really interesting to meditate on and just be mindful of as you embark on your global expeditions. By dismantling the romantic allusions of travel and acknowledging it’s consumerist element, it may encourage us to make more informed ethical choices about how we consume other cultures and experiences.

To understand more of why we cannot help but contribute to a material world, I think we need to look at how consumerism and marketing really play into something deeper within our psyches and social conditioning. Today, instant gratification infiltrates itself into most areas of everyday life, from communication to shopping. We live in on a planet that functions not completely unlike an extensive nervous system – which continues to grow in sheer size and complexity through technological advancement, and whose nerves are twinged by global anxieties perpetuated by media and marketing. Consequently, the accessibility of instant gratification in the marketing world brings about temporary contentment within ourselves that we struggle to find when navigating through human experiences that are harder to grapple with and seek light from, such as grief, trauma or loneliness. I know that by no means it is an efficient way to seek permanent happiness within our life experiences, as we need to constantly practice introspect and proactivity in order to flourish both emotionally and mentally. However, I think it’s an interesting angle to look at our habitual consumption in order to carve out an understanding of why it feels deeply ingrained within us, rather than just throwing critiques and shame out there regarding the nature of our consumerism.

Rather than constantly loading the shame and guilt of consuming onto yourself or the backs of others, maybe it’s worthwhile reflecting on your own reasons for contributing to our material world – if that’s purchasing physical goods or buying stakes in the market of experiences when it comes to travel. In the anxious world we live in, it is practically inevitable to fall down the rabbit hole of materialism or consuming, but what we can do is be more meditative on the practice of it rather than mindlessly devouring coffee, clothing, cars, hotels, and so on. I am not saying in anyway that we should become mechanical machines mindlessly turning the cogs of consumerism, where the corporate giants just continue to get richer. However if we started practicing meaningful consumption rather than using castigation to shame us all out of it, than maybe we would realise the negatives of such purging – whether that be environmentally or financially – and begin to act with more care when we do consume.

Art by Kimberly Freeman

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