We are always making consumption decisions: where to go on holiday; which handbag to purchase; which mortgage lender to go to; what style of socks or make of car to buy; what to have for lunch. We don’t normally spell it out, but each decision is a shot at understanding ourselves in some sector of existence, big or small. The range of our options is inevitably constrained but ideally, in exercising choice, we are promoting our happiness to the greatest possible extent. Even apparently modest things like what we put in the trolley in the supermarket or what shoes we wear are distillations of large, nebulous notions: who we think we are, how we wish to live and what we think will contribute to our well being. From different directions, all our actions as consumers are tapping into the same central question: what will make me happy?
We tend to think of consumption going badly or well mainly around price. We get annoyed with ourselves for spending too much. Or we’re really pleased if we pick up a bargain.
But there’s another way things can go wrong around consumption choices. We choose the wrong things because we don’t know ourselves well enough to select what will best work for us.
It can initially sound like a strange and rather insulting idea. How can you possible say that I am not qualified to know what I want? The idea that we might have a shortfall of self-knowledge around purchasing decisions can feel offensive.
The pursuit of happiness through personal choice is a key notion of modern capitalism. And it is tied to a critical – but rarely admitted – assumption, which is that we already naturally have enough self knowledge and a good enough grasp of our true needs to make the right choices for ourselves.
© Flickr/Elvis Payne
But the problem is that self-knowledge isn’t as easy and obvious as we might naturally suppose. With hindsight, we can sometimes see we’ve made mistaken choices. One ends up thinking things like:
– I thought I’d be wearing that dress all the time, in fact it’s hardly left the wardrobe.
– I seriously underestimated how stressed the mortgage would make me.
– I thought moving to the country would be great, but I just can’t stand being cut off from my old friends.
– What am I doing in Croatia at the beach!
The regrets could be summed up as the thought: if I’d known myself better at the time I’d have made a different decision.
It’s natural at times to blame ourselves for these mistakes. But really we’re more deserving of sympathy than criticism, because there are some pretty serious obstacles to the necessary consumer self-knowledge. Here are a few of these obstacles:
One: We track prestige too much
What we think we want is produced culturally. We’re strongly inclined to take our cues from other people – and to take to heart whatever has prestige in our society. We see this – with comic clarity – in societies far from our own, especially those in the past. There were times and places where adolescent boys were desperately excited by the idea of possessing a walking stick.
Aged fourteen, they’d long for the day when they too could tap the pavement with an ebony cane. It seems funny in retrospect, but it is really just evidence about the power of prestige. We naturally want the things that convey social status – though, of course, what things have prestige changes dramatically over time.
Prestige is a problem when the things that enjoy prestige are not the ones that happen to serve our own best interests. We are so dependent on the regard of others, we may well forget the signals from deep within us that are hinting to us that we are not actually happy with the standard paths being proposed…