“An economy primarily driven by growth must generate discontent.”

— The Poverty of Affluence, Paul L. Wachtel. Preface, Page xi.

Our current economic system sustains itself by breeding discontent; making sure that we’re never quite happy with what we have or where we stand and thereby encouraging us to try in vain to buy our way out of our discontent.

The pursuit of economic growth comes at great cost both to our environment and our health. We know that we are destroying our planet and poisoning the air we breathe and the water we drink to make shit that doesn’t make our lives any better. Under a different model centered around improving human experience as opposed to furthering economic growth, we wouldn’t feel a need for most of the stuff we produce and buy today.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t make the needs that we do feel under our current arrangment any less real. Just knowing that our material desires are irrational, externally imposed, and ultimately self-defeating does not allow us to turn them off whenever it suits us. Our economic system and subsequent way of life is set up to make us need more and more by design.

Our cycle of dependence on material goods is underpinned by the erosion of human interdependency and our communities which once provided us with our sense of security and belonging. Aspirations of upward social mobility remove what once were strong connections to a context and place and replace them with a “better” material standard of living, and as such we find ourselves battling to stay feeling secure and powerful through improving our material wealth.

In subscribing to this growth-oriented mindset, we are robbed of a basic sense of belonging and identity, and must continue to try to keep up with a target that is constantly running away from us.

“Our overriding stress on productivity and growth and the toll it takes on our health and well-being are part of a tragically unnecessary treadmill on which we run, ever more desperately, with ever more strain, committing more and more of our lives to the hopeless chase to keep up.”

Paul L. Wachtel, The Poverty of Affluence, Page 79.

Our material possesions have not provided the fulfilment and enjoyment they promised, yet we persist neurotically with the charade, hoping that the next purchase or the next upgrade will bring the contentment we are searching for.

Growing up in an economically deprived area with parents who succesfully “transcended” the standards of living of their own parents, it was hard to even question, let alone see any problems with, the promise of a better life through an increase in material wealth.

It took a fortunate chance event for me to see it differently. A sharp increase in my income a few years ago gave me the chance to throw myself into a much higher standard of material living immediately, and just as quickly learn that it was not all that it was promised to be.

When you can easily buy the material luxuries you’ve been brought up to believe are worth coveting without a second thought, their appeal disintegrates in front of your eyes only to be replaced by newer desires just slightly out of reach. It was an ugly truth to face; that I had been chasing things that could never make me content.

I am not inclined to fall for the same illusion twice, but I had been fortunate to see it laid out so clearly. How much I had wanted these things before I could afford them and how little they mattered after I could afford them were both fresh in my mind at the same time. Realising that having more not only left me just as unsatisfied as before but also made hollow the things I continued to want caused a profound shift in my attitude towards consumerism. Had my circumstances changed gradually, as they do for most people, it is more than likely I would never have questioned the validity of those material desires.

I will forever be glad to have had those first hand experiences at a young age and I will not forget the way they made me feel. I felt disgust at the inhumane ugliness of the cycle I was in.

Still, as Paul Wachtel notes in his book, any way of life that does not align with the economic mainstream is a difficult one to maintain; everything is built around it. There are no social structures that support turning your back on the cycle of working more to buy more stuff, no clear alternative paths to a more meaningful life. Years later, after both the income and my appetite for it have disappeared, I am still struggling to adapt to my change in perspective, struggling to find new motivations and sources of fulfilment that I can look to build a better life around.

I think the best I can hope for is to live by values that prevent me from ever slipping in to the same illusion again; that having more will make life better, that there will be happiness at the end of the rainbow. More money, bigger houses, better cars, blah, blah, blah.

The Poverty of Affluence book that I lifted the lead quote on this page from was written in 1983. Since then, consumerism and its consequences have been dialed up to eleven. In an article for The Guardian in 2022 talking about the effects of the modern world and particularly social media on our attention spans, Johann Hari wrote:

“At the moment it’s as though we are all having itching powder poured over us all day, and the people pouring the powder are saying: “You might want to learn to meditate. Then you wouldn’t scratch so much.” Meditation is a useful tool – but we actually need to stop the people who are pouring itching powder on us.”

— Johann Hari, Your attention didn’t collapse. It was stolen. The Guardian, 2022.

This stuck with me because it is so rare to see our discontent framed as anything other than our own fault. It seems to me to be part of the same phenomenon; a symptom of a growth-oriented economy, of a cycle of mindless consumerism. The less control we have over our attention and our actions the better consumers we make.

If there is one thing I find worth remembering, it’s that the economic system we have inflicts this discontent upon us and requires it to be this way in order to achieve growth. It’s not the fault of the individual, but nevertheless it is on us to find a better way to live than this.