We Are Not Who We Think We Are

| April 13, 2012

If you asked what people really care about, what brings happiness and gives them life, most would talk about the value of relationships with family and friends, among other lofty ideals. James Roberts, professor of marketing and consumer behavior at Baylor University, argues our actions and behaviors tell a different story. We are not who we think we are.

In today’s culture we are what we drive, what we wear, where we live and how many gadgets we own. Roberts’ book, Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy, provides a disturbing picture of how our materialistic passions threaten our physical, mental and financial wellbeing. Professor Roberts employs research and sociology through an interesting journey that explains how we transformed into our current obsession with possessions. Ironically, the pursuit of things often requires long, stressful hours of work to pay for them. Not only is this pursuit counterproductive to bring us the happiness we desire but is actually bad for us.

In 1982, the personal savings rate was 10.9 percent of personal income but by 2005 it had plummeted to 1.5 percent. The severe recession shocked us only enough to increase the rate to 5 percent. 70 percent of us live from paycheck to paycheck. The average household has over 10,000 dollars in credit-card debt and over 1.5 million people filed for bankruptcy in 2010. We know someone turns sixty every six seconds, but the average baby boomer has less than 200,000 dollars in net worth to sustain what could be twenty years or more of retirement.

One of the fascinating sections is a discussion of “The American Dream.” It has always included a belief in the freedom to pursue our goals, to better ourselves, to be able to worship as we pleased, speak without fear of recrimination and be independent. Implicit was the understanding that hard work, thrift, sacrifice and honesty could help us become financially independent. America’s pursuit of this dream is one of the greatest stories in history, but we morphed from seeking the “good life” to pursuing a “life of goods.” Our definition of “The American Dream” changed into the belief everyone should own a home, and have a car for each adult, smart phones, wide-screen televisions, the latest fashions and whatever else we desired.

Make no mistake. There is nothing wrong is wanting to succeed financially; nor is it wrong to enjoy the wonderful conveniences of this age, but an honest check-up might result in many of us admitting we suffer from affluenza,” which Wikipedia defines as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” Fortunately, the last section of this book is a course in financial literacy and solvency, with self-help tips like “25 Tweaks to Financial Tranquility.”

Shiny Objects is not a rant against capitalism, nor a condemnation of our commerce system. It is a wake-up call to contrast and compare our relationship with possessions and money with our relationships with loved ones, perhaps preventing us from being who we think we are and who we really want to be. Think about your “American Dream” and how much shiny objects fit into that dream?

Category: Economy, SPIN Blog

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