Ad Nauseam: Can Things Make You Happy?

0 Posted by - 03/10/2013 - Blogs

Happiness. It’s impossible to define. However, I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that we often view happiness – whatever form it comes in – as a destination, as the ultimate fruit of our labours. We tend to think love will bring us happiness rather than happiness will bring us love. I’d also suggest this mindset is a product of the society we live in. Or even that happiness, in our society, is in products. And it is this idea that I want to look at: the idea that consuming makes us happy.

Consumerism lies at the heart of our political economy. It is the driving force our society depends upon. As long as people keep consuming, then products will be sold, jobs will be kept, capital will be generated, we will all live happily every after. You probably know this, but to reiterate for the sake of my arguement: capitalism relies on endless production and endless consumption.

This can cause problems when people have all their base needs – food shelter, clothing, etc – covered, plus some. How to keep us buying? How to sell products that people don’t functionally need? Advertisers were tasked with the problem, and their solution was fairly ingenious.


They moved up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and sold us the idea that products can meet intangible needs. The top three tiers of the pyramid could easily be gathered together under the term happiness, and advertisers figured out that our intangible desires were far more insatiable than our tangible needs. And so many products have become not things at all, but ideas that, upon acquisition, are said to make us happy. Ideas like: this product will make me cool (Apple), get me the ladies (Lynx deodorant), make me successful (Nike), give me social status (Prada). The implication is that by acquiring these products we will also acquire these qualities, and they will bring us happiness.

This took no small degree of fiction-making on the part of advertisers. The idea, for example, that opening a bottle of Coca-Cola is like “opening happiness” is as powerful as it is fictitious. I call advertising's great leap up Maslow’s pyramid ingenious because it appears contrary to our hyper-rational age. An age that treats the intangible, creative and emotional as less worthy than the rational and scientific. Advertising has done fairly well regardless – a blight on reasons perfect radar, perhaps?

Anyway, the real question is: can products actually make us happy?

There is a fantastic paradox that suggests otherwise. It is this: we are sold the idea of things providing happiness, and yet a fundamental principle of capitalism (endless consumption) relies upon us remaining unhappy. Or, in other words, permanently dissatisfied. While happiness is a destination, capitalism never arrives: it requires endless consuming. Products can never actually provide a lasting sense of fulfilment because then companies would go out business.

But wait, the paradox deepens. Because now it seems the focus of advertising is not lighting the path to happiness but devising more and more elaborate ways of making us unhappy; creating holes that can be filled by an endless supply of new products.

And if we do believe things can make us genuinely happy, we may find ourselves spending more time wanting happiness than being happy. Capitalism is future orientated and similarly, the happiness in buying is always deferred into the future. It always lies waiting in our next purchase. Spiritual guide Eckarte Tolle argued that consuming as a mode self-fullfilment is a “structural wanting” that is internally empty. Products may provide the “filling” but they are interchangeable and transient, partly because businesses have a lot of filling they want us to get through.

Tolle, and Buddhism in general, also argue that happiness never exists within objects themselves. True happiness lies within. It comes from the inside out, not the outside in. And is it not a strange notion, that a feeling arising from inside can be dependent on an object entirely separate from yourself?

The principles of advertising, when you look carefully, support Tolle's assertion. A lot of advertising works by altering our perceptions without altering the product. The happiness I gain from a red sports car is mostly dependent upon my internal perception of the car, not the car in and of itself. Because of this, beauty in objects can change. Take the moment when Volkswagen encouraged us to think small when consumers were thinking big, and a car that was perceived as a dud become an icon. What such advertising victories suggest is that whenever an object makes us happy it come from our perception of the object, not the object itself. From the inside out, not the outside in.


If happiness comes from within, but advertising encourages us to seek it from without, we are caught in a bit of a happiness trap. Zen's solution is non-attachment.  To void all attachments and find happiness within ourselves in the moment, rather than searching for it in products or future purchases. I think it’s a sound principle. And it doesn’t mean that we must reject products all together, or never find any pleasure in them. Rather, it suggests we could enjoy them without attachment, without getting caught up in the idea that the products in-and-of themselves make us happy.

And if we could find happiness within ourselves, we might become less dependent on buying things for happiness. This would be particularly useful when the money runs short. We might even become our own advertisers in a way, spinning our own meaning onto all sorts of things, not just the particular things being sold to us. Instead of needing a Coca-Cola to open happiness, we might choose to use a stray paperclip, or a seashell. Advertisers too could remind us to stay present and enjoy the so called iced cream, rather than telling us we need it to be happy. Because meaning and happiness begin within us. Things are a mere afterthought.

Beth Gibson




  • David Heslin 07/10/2013 - 1:36 pm

    Well argued and likely true. But to take something of a devil’s advocate view, is it possible that the Buddhist idea of happiness as some kind of pure sensation is incompatible with our modern understandings of neuroscience? Is happiness really that much more than dopamine release; mere stimulation of the pleasure-causing nerves? (I’m not just talking sex and drugs here, but the pleasure felt when enjoying a good film, engaging in intellectual thought or doing nice things for other people)

    Or, instead, is it more of a loose accumulation of various ‘positive’ mental states that are themselves quite concrete and quite possibly caused by petty things like possessions and sporting success?

    Even if either of these possibilities are true, it may well still be the case that the most satisfying and long-lasting pleasure (ugh, that sounds like it belongs on a billboard!) comes from within. But if we know that something as harmful as clinical depression can be induced by stress (see Sapolsky video below) and that stress can be caused by simple things like lack of money, lack of friends or physical discomfort, could it be that money can, in a way, make you happier?

    Of course, I already know what the Buddhist answer to this would be, and it’s likely correct: far better to learn to accept your impoverished state and experience happiness despite it than make happiness dependent on attaining more wealth. I’m no adherent, but that’s pretty sound logic.

  • blogger 12/10/2013 - 11:42 am

    Interesting video. I feel like it sort of supported the idea that depression is very much a mental/internal disease that needs internal solutions, because the stressors of life are fairly uncontrollable/ you can’t help bad things happening to you, you can only really help your internal reaction to them (whether you need drugs or not to aid your internal reactions). In that sense I think money and things can only go so far, although I do agree that a baseline of wealth probably makes life a lot easier. Then again, there some interesting studies showing that people in wealthier countries have far higher rates of depression than people in poorer countries, showing that once you exceed that base line your happiness doesn’t increase in relation to wealth increase. I would read into that and suggest that once you get caught up in the idea that the more you have the happier you’ll be, the more this mentality actually makes you less happy. I think this is key too: if you become addict to things or wealth in the sense that you need them to be happy, that is where a lot of unhappiness comes from, because you will feel unhappy when you don’t have wealth or things, or enough wealth or enough things, and so your caught in cycle that goes from happy to unhappy to happy to unhappy. So it’s not necessarily that you can’t enjoy things or get pleasure out of them, but that developing a dependence on things is itself a source of much unhappiness. Take alcohol – when your not addicted to it, it can be a source of pleasure. When you’re addicted to it, you are only happy with it, without it you are desperately unhappy, and you become trapped in a cycle of need, which eventually escalates into a “never enough” mentality where you almost always unhappy. That is an example of where an addiction to something that, by itself, can be pleasurable, turns into something that probably does you more harm than good. The same, I think, is true for things or consumer goods. And what I think capitalist culture does – advertising playing a key role in this – is encourage us to become addict to goods so that we keep buying, and so we get caught in a cycle of addiction where we feel permanently dissatisfied.
    This also points toward the idea that a cultural mindset, and not just biology (something the video acknowledged) can impact depression rates. To what extent does our cultural dispose to depression? Are the Freudian “aggression turned inwards” and the CBT “learned helplessness” learned through our culture?

    The other thing I found interesting about that video was the bit about believing in thoughts to the point where your brain thinks they are real and reacts to them as real stressors. That I think is very much inline with buddhism and meditation – the idea of watching thoughts and noticing them come and go as a way of detaching yourself from them, realising they are only thoughts, and not allowing them to become so “real” in your mind that they impact you negatively. And I think buddhism too would make a distinction between the kind of transient pleasure you refer to and the deeper internal peace that comes from non-attachment: it’s not “happiness” in the mmmm, ice cream sense.

    May I ask why are not an adherent to buddhism? Any interesting criticisms?

  • David Heslin 12/10/2013 - 4:15 pm

    I think that’s an excellent point re: consumerism being a kind of addiction – it really does have that effect, doesn’t it? The more you have, the more you want.

    In regards to Buddhism, I have to confess I haven’t studied it in sufficient depth to have much of an informed view, but my impression is that it has a lot of really sound ideas and a few fundamentally misguided ones. In the first category is more or less what we’re talking about here: the value of finding internal happiness and not making it dependent upon external things. Interestingly, there are a few messages like this in New Testament Christianity, too, though probably not as fleshed out. Although I’ve never meditated, I expect that it is quite a healthy and rewarding pursuit.

    On the other hand, I find some aspects of Buddhism are incongruous with my own understanding of the world. Karma, for instance, seems to suggest that people can be said to ‘deserve’ what happens to them, which is not what I believe at all; likewise, the Five Precepts – really, even the idea that there could ever be ‘five’ precepts that should be followed absolutely – are a little too dogmatic for my tastes. Lastly, as attractive as it is, I can’t help but find reincarnation (along with any doctrine of the mind existing outside of the body and basic physical processes) to be a fanciful idea. I’m under the impression that certain variants of Buddhism place more emphasis on these ideas than others (and some local cultural interpretations can get very superstitious).

    Are these criticisms at all fair, do you think? Or am I misrepresenting some of the ideas?