Does less make us happier?

Giulia Bernardi • 19.03.2019

We need our own car, lots of different outfits. Because they are an expression of who we are and what we value. This is how it is exemplified by our consumption-oriented society: I buy, therefore I am. But does it actually make us happier?

Time Square, New York. A flood of images from neon signs, flashing logos and digital advertisements floating across large-format screens. This place is in many ways a reflection of consumption-oriented society, but not only in the United States, where Black Friday and supersize portions have recently gained cult status, but in Switzerland too. To see this in action you just need to go to Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich immediately before the release of the new iPhone: You will see fans camping outside the Apple Store – sometimes several days before the launch.

The documentary Minimalismstarts with similar images:: A Documentary About the Important Things, which was released in 2016 and explains how protagonists Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn discover a way to a more minimalist and conscious lifestyle. “I had everything I had ever wanted. I had everything I should have.” states Ryan Nicodemus at the beginning of the film. “Everyone around me said, ‘You are successful.’ But the truth was that I was unhappy. There was this gaping void in my life. So, just like many people do, I tried to fill this void: with stuff, lots of stuff. I filled the void with consumer purchases.”

Nicodemus and Millburn subsequently discovered the lifestyle of “less is more” for themselves, and at the same time developed it into a clever self-marketing concept: Under the name The Minimalists, they give lectures, and sell books and films. You can approve of it or not, but the words of Nicodemus hang in the air and point to the urgent question which everyone has probably already asked themselves: What do I really need, in order to be happy?

“The need to have a higher status is a fundamental human need”

Consume and be consumed

In the post-war years, growing prosperity in Europe led to steadily expanding consumer choice. In the 1950s and 1960s, owning your own car or house increasingly became status symbols for such affluence. “The need to have a higher status, i.e. to enjoy a certain esteem attributed by others, is a fundamental human need,” says Michael Burtscher, lecturer in social and economic psychology at the University of Zurich. “Products enable a person to raise their status via their consumption behaviour. This is referred to as conspicuous consumption: I do not buy a particular thing because I need it, but because I want to demonstrate that I can afford something or because I want to signal a certain lifestyle.”

Consequently, we have a new definition of human identity, which increases via products. This is also illustrated by the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in his book Life as Consumption, published in 2009. According to Bauman, with product-oriented self-presentation, we not only consume, but are also consumed. This aspect is also intensified by social networks.

The fact that things are not just things, but expressions of personality and lifestyle, is also illustrated by advertising: So it is not just a toothpaste that is touted, but a happy life, which suddenly seems to be within immediate reach by consumption of the product. “I spent money faster than I earned it, and tried to buy my way to happiness,” continues Ryan Nicodemus in the film. “I thought I would manage it one day. Surely, luck would be just around the corner.”

“Synthetic consumption markets are based on ongoing interaction and positive experiences leading to the release of the happiness hormones”

Fewer things, fewer decisions

It would appear that the advertising industry wants to tell us that the consumption of a particular product not only satisfies basic needs, but also helps us live a fuller life. This mechanism is defined as a dopamine economy in the End of Consumption study by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute. If needs are satisfied, the body releases dopamine and serotonin, so-called happiness hormones. The body remembers this feeling of exhilaration and uses a feedback mechanism that motivates us to repeat those exact things that made us happy. This happens not only when we listen to music or take part in sports, but also when shopping online. Algorithms that predict and trigger our buying behaviour, trigger happiness after a successful purchase. “Synthetic consumption markets are based on ongoing interaction and positive experiences leading to the release of the happiness hormones,” the study suggests.

So does consumption make us happy? American psychologist Tim Kasser would refute this. In a study published in 2009 under the title The High Price of Materialism, Kasser found those people who considered material belongings and assets important considered themselves less satisfied. In comparison: Those people who classed material things as less relevant within their value system stated that they were more satisfied.

The suggestion that materialism, in particular the abundance of choice, makes us unhappy, has also been concluded in other studies. During the first decade of this century, Psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper carried out a study in an American supermarket. The study included two groups that had to choose between 6 and 24 products. The result: The group, which had a smaller selection to choose from, found the decision easier and, in their own opinion, were also more satisfied with their decision. “Choice is fundamentally positive, but too much choice is undesirable,” suggests Michael Burtscher. “Decision-making is often considered cumbersome and cognitively exhausting. In the end, we have limited resources: With long decision-making processes, we lack the time and energy for other things.” So-called opportunity costs, also referred to as waiver costs, also play a role. “When there are six things to choose from, you only have to decide against five. On the other hand, if there are 24 available, the perceived opportunity cost is much higher. “

“Our consumption is changing from product to service-oriented consumption”

Slow Fashion and Micro-Living

On the one hand, a smaller selection makes our decision easier, and ultimately results in us being more satisfied with our choice. On the other hand, social movements also point to the need to live in a more minimalist fashion and therefore more consciously. The global climate strike of 15 March, which was initiated by young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, or movements such as slow-fashion or zero-waste movements are just a few examples.

In addition to intrinsic motives – to act more environmentally consciously and to consume fewer resources – there are also extrinsic drivers. These include initiatives such as the 2000-watt society, which aims to reduce the average energy consumption per person of 5,000 watts to around half, or progressive urbanization. According to a United Nations report, about two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. So-called micro-apartments, in which, depending on the model, you live in just 24 square meters, adjusts living space to the lack of space in the future and automatically make you choose your belongings carefully.

Digitisation also makes it easier to own less. Instead of owning CDs, we can use streaming providers like Spotify. Instead of buying your own car, car-sharing can be used. This change in consumer behaviour has also been observed by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute: Our consumption is changing from product to service-oriented consumption. The focus is no longer on goods, but on access to services.

“Does it add value?”

Who decides?

With the scarcity of habitat and resources, it is becoming more and more important to ask ourselves what we really need. This should also be considered with respect to progressing digitisation. Because this not only helps us to own less, but also makes products, which are suggested to us by appropriate algorithms, accessible anytime and anywhere. So who decides what to buy and when? Man or machine?

“For every decision I make, every relationship, every item, every dollar I spend, I always ask myself: Does it add value?” Says Ryan Nicodemus at the end of the film. And maybe it is exactly this questions that we should ask ourselves more often.