With timing so precipitous as to border on the comic, Chancellor Alistair Darling chose to announce a cut in VAT in the same week as Buy Nothing Day, today’s annual jamboree of anti-consumerism that urges us to forsake all consumer spending for 24 hours. Suggested activities on the BND website include temper tantrums – “Sit on the floor in any shop with a friend and chuck a mental. Shout things like ‘I don’t want anything anymore!” – and zombie shopping excursions of like-minded individuals dressed in ghoulish garb and “shuffling from shop to shop chanting BUY, BUY – BRANDS, BRANDS!” All good fun, but as anyone familiar with Oxford Street on a normal Saturday will know hardly an effective way to grab attention. The protesters will blend in seamlessly.
But whatever your view of BND, you might still find it a little odd that our Government is somehow trying to elide consumerism and civic duty, two things that are – or should be – about as far apart on the individual-society spectrum as it’s possible to get. Whilst not, perhaps, as banally distasteful as George W Bush’s exhortation to Americans to respond to 9/11 by going shopping, there is something discomforting about the Government’s plea. For as unemployment rises, property prices plummet and millions live in fear of their next credit card bill, this should be a moment to step back and reassess whether the way we consume has taken us nearer to, or further from, the kinds of lives we really want.
For years, we’ve lived with a poisonous combination of messages: on the one hand, constant bombardment from advertisers intent on telling us how hollow our lives are without magical Product X and, on the other, staggeringly easy access to credit with which to acquire Product X on the never-never. There are plenty of reasons to worry about this. Perhaps the most obvious is the indisputable link between Western levels of consumption and unsustainable environmental pressure. We can’t expect to keep living as we have been doing and stave off irreversible climate change, let alone repair the damage to ecosystem services and biodiversity caused by our profligacy and attain some measure of global social justice.
There are significant downsides at the personal level too. For instance, recent research from the renowned Institute of Psychiatry in London shows that personal debt “mediates” the relationship between poor economic circumstances and mental health difficulties. In other words, the further up to your neck you are in debt, the higher your chances of developing clinically significant anxiety and depression, largely irrespective of how much you earn. It’s not hard to imagine why this might be. The stress of working just to keep up repayments and the fear of defaulting are constant and gnawing, and that’s without having to deal with the feelings of shame and inadequacy if things really go wrong. There will be plenty of former bankers and traders in serious emotional distress at present, and that is not something anyone should be celebrating.
There is also a more subtle, but no less damaging aspect to all this focus on personal consumption. People who are strongly motivated by the idea of getting rich and famous are what psychologists (despairingly) and marketeers (delightedly) refer to as “materialistic”. The scientific evidence for negative impacts from materialism is pretty overwhelming; they range from poorer personal relationships through fewer good moods and lower self-esteem to increased prevalence of psychological symptoms. Ironically, given the consumption-as-moral-imperative line implicit in the VAT cut, materialistic people have been shown to be generally more selfish and less inclined to help others, even when there it little personal cost involved. Fascinatingly, in one study, the extent of individuals’ materialistic outlook was shown to be positively correlated with their ecological footprints.
If Western-style consumerism, with its attendant values and attitudes, aren’t making us happy, what might do? Possible answers are provided by nef’s mental health equivalent of “five fruit and veg a day”, which we distilled from the evidence on improving well-being and warding-off mental health difficulties. What we came up with was a list of simple, everyday activities, arranged around five core concepts: Connect… Be active… Take notice… Keep learning… Give…
There is a reason that none of these suggestions involve consuming more or striving to get richer, and it has nothing to do with our ideological preferences. The reason is that they are based on the best available scientific evidence, and the best available evidence is unequivocal. The road to well-being is not paved with gold, but lined with friends and family, punctuated by opportunities for enjoyable detours, and is more about the journey than the destination. The happiest people in the world are those who spend their time engaging with life to the full, sharing experiences with friends and savouring the moment. The least happy are those who spend it slumped in front of the TV wishing they were Paris Hilton. And that, as they say, is a fact.
It is all enough to give us cause to reflect on what would really be the best way to spend this Buy Nothing Day Saturday. For those of us who are consuming way beyond our means (and the Earth’s) it is about time we started buying less every day. Do that, and the evidence shows our lives are likely to be richer as a result.