Why We Can’t Buy Happiness — But Try to Anyway

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(Courtesy of Time.com)

In 1972, the percentage of Americans who said they were “pretty happy” was about 50%. In the years since, the U.S.’s standard of living has risen dramatically, and our gross domestic product per capita has increased by 96%. That means we have more, we consume more and we can afford more. But today, what percentage of Americans say they’re “pretty happy?” Fifty percent. In a new book out Nov. 8, Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy, Marketing Professor Dr. James Roberts analyzes why we buy more, more, more but just don’t think we’re any better off. In fact, we seem to think things are even worse.

In your book, you write that over the last several decades, we’ve consumed more and more products, but we’re just as happy as we were 40 years ago. So, what’s wrong with us?

We have short-term amnesia as consumers, and not only are we really not any happier than we were, we’re probably worse off. What we’ve found after every recession in modern times is that we’ve actually up-ticked our spending afterward, but we’re finding that what we thought would bring us happiness, all this extra increase in consumption, just doesn’t deliver the goods. So it’s not only that our happiness has not increased, but there’re a number of studies that tell us we are more depressed, more suicidal, more psychotic, more anxious, more stressed than we were 30, 40 years ago.

It seems that consuming is in our DNA, but we still bare responsibility for our actions, right?

Most of the research says we can blame about 50% of our problems on our personality. We have been programmed as human beings to store up materials for the future when there may not be food available. That was a good thing for us when we were living in the era of scarcity. But now in the era of abundance, we haven’t learned that there’s plenty tomorrow. We’re still storing up, and we just never seem to fill that void.

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You write that we seem to understand that money doesn’t bring happiness. But knowing that appears to have no affect on our behavior.

As much as we’re refined and have elevated ourselves from those more primordial concerns, we’re still that caveman under the stress of not having enough. People want to blame marketers and say, “Well, it’s all this advertising.” That may have accelerated it, but you don’t have to look that far back to see that before TV or radio, we had the gold rush, or the Egyptian rulers who were buried with their gold because they thought it would give them an easier entrance into the afterlife.

We’ve always had this idea of the American Dream: a nice house, picket fence. How has the definition changed over the last few years?

It started out with the puritan work ethic that we were to scrimp and save through hard work, patience and perseverance. Then the goal was just to have some level of comfort. But we have perverted the American Dream. We’ve perverted the little white house with the picket fence and the car in the driveway to the 3-car garage with a Hummer out front, the 3,000-square foot house and jewelry and everything that goes along with it. It’s the American Dream on steroids. Today we want the easy wealth without the work.

Do you think this recession will have long-lasting impacts on our behavior?

Just the fact that we’re having another recession and we’re caught with our pants down with no money and savings, suggests that we didn’t learn from the previous recession. As soon as we see the light at the end of the tunnel, we’re back out there with our credit cards in hand at the mall.

Does it feel funny writing a book about the hazards of consumerist culture considering you’re a professor of marketing?

I’m kind of on the dark side. I teach consumer behavior and advertising, yet a lot of what I talk about is, How does all this advertising and marketing impact us as human beings? How does it impact our society? So, yeah, I’m a bit of anomaly in the marketing faculty.

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Do you think we can get out of this cycle of more, more, more?

If we can’t convince ourselves that money and material possessions won’t bring us happiness, we are forever going to be chasing that golden ring. So really the change has to be attitudinal. Once we can do that, if we can do that, then the behaviors will follow. Then we’ll start to say, well I don’t need that watch, or that fancy car or that big house. I don’t want to be misunderstood — I’m not saying money is evil. Money plays a very important role in our lives. But the point is that it’s got to be held in balance with all our other important values. Money is a poor master but a good servant. If you allow it to run your life, you are going to be unhappy. But if you use it to live a reasonable life and to help others, you’re going to find great happiness in a moderate level of material possessions and affluence.

So is it unrealistic to think that we could ever get out of these habits? Are you concerned your book will have zero impact?

People are so busy that they really don’t have time to reflect on their behaviors. Someone asked me  – How do you justify or rationalize people spending $20-$25 for a book when you’re trying to tell people not to spend money? And that’s a good question. My answer is, this is an investment that can literally change your life. There’ve been some studies that have shown that overly materialistic men spend less time with their families and are more likely to get divorced from their wives. So it isn’t just a pocketbook thing. It’s about quality of life. I don’t think people realize how much our attitudes toward money and possessions impact that.

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