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After the giving and receiving. Materialism and happiness and tough lives

This year in some circles we have seem a backlash against materialism. Typical is a new book by Robert Wolman called Stuffocation [1], arguing that stuff does not make us happy, but rather it is experiences and relationships which do. Much research bears this out and such analyses can make important points, but maybe leave out what might be propelling people to consume. 

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More on happiness and consumerism

A new study from San Francisco State University and published in the Journal of Happiness Studies  [1] casts a very particular slant on being a consumer by showing that people gain much more of a sense of happiness from purchasing life experiences than from buying material possessions. What the study shows is that it is the motivation behind what we buy which has the biggest effect on our happiness levels. If we buy things because we hope it will impress others, raise our status or prove something then the benefits of the purchase will be far more minimal. When people buy things or experiences because this fits with their desires, interests and values then they feel more competent, autonomous, less lonely and more fulfilled. This fits with a swathe of other studies such as a recent one of over 50,000 adults in Norway[2]  which found that those who engaged in more cultural activities, such as going to the theatre or art galleries, had better health, more life-satisfaction and lower levels of depression and anxiety. Being interested in things broader than oneself, and not just material rewards, is very clearly good for us. People who spend their money on experiences, such as holidays or cultural activities, tend to have higher levels of wellbeing and are generally also more optimistic, outgoing and happy  than those who spend their money more on consumer goods[3].

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Do we want to be consumers of services?

We are living in an increasingly consumerist culture. Public sector services are often being run like private companies, alongside privatisation the profit motive is more and more central to how services are being planned and delivered. For those of us working in such services one loss is that we must increasingly turn people away on cost grounds, and sometimes even cherry-pick ‘profitable’ work. In addition colleagues in nearby organisations, with whom mutual learning and the exchange of ideas was once possible,  are now competitors in a dog eat dog world, and so opportunities for helping each other in delivering the best health or other services are threatened. Another other central agenda is that of personal choice, and public servants are frequently expected to think of those we work with as customers.

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