Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Consuming Discontentedness

It is very interesting that as the economic boom of the 1990s fizzles, citizens have stopped staring at the great dollar sign in the sky and started re-examining their own lives. Instead of the socialized message of America that says put money above all else, many Americans are stopping and realizing that happiness often comes without the money. A number of books and blogs have been written by researchers about happiness and how to find it, including this blog by Rebecca Sato

The Consumer Paradox

Researchers have found that low self-esteem and materialism are not just a correlation, but also a causal relationship where low self esteem increases materialism, and materialism can also create low self-esteem. The also found that as self esteem increases, materialism decreases. The study primarily focused on how this relationship affects children and adolescents. Lan Nguyen Chaplin (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) and Deborah Roedder John (University of Minnesota) found that even a simple gesture to raise self-esteem dramatically decreased materialism, which provides a way to cope with insecurity.
"By the time children reach early adolescence, and experience a decline in self-esteem, the stage is set for the use of material possessions as a coping strategy for feelings of low self-worth," they write in the study, which will appear in the Journal of Consumer Research.
The paradox that findings such as these bring up, is that consumerism is good for the economy but bad for the individual. In the short run, it’s good for the economy when young people believe they need to buy an entirely new wardrobe every year, for example. But the hidden cost is much higher than the dollar amount. There are costs in happiness when people believe that their value is extrinsic. There are also environmental costs associated with widespread materialism.
In the book “Happiness: Lessons From a New Science”, Richard Layard exposes a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most of us want more income so we can consume more. Yet as societies become richer, they do not become happier. In fact, the First World has more depression, more alcoholism and more crime than fifty years ago. This paradox is true of Britain, the United States, continental Europe and Japan.
Statistically people have more things than they did 50 years ago, but they are actually less happy in several key areas. There is also the considerable cost of what materialism does to the environment. We don’t yet know what final toll that could take in terms of quality of life and overall happiness. What many people don’t understand is that if we want to save the environment then at some level we have to buy and consume less. We don’t need to buy so much bottled water, for example. Studies have shown it’s usually not any purer than city tap water, which doesn’t leave mountains of plastic bottles strewn across the nations landfills. It also wastes energy and resources to make those plastic bottles and the many other unnecessary things that both youth and adults alike believe they need to have in order to enjoy life and feel good about themselves.
Mad Magazine summed it up with the statement, “The only reason a great many American families don't own an elephant is that they have never been offered an elephant for a dollar down and easy weekly payments.”
That funny statement, is only funny because it’s somewhat true. The reason people want whatever is currently “hot” is because they believe it will contribute towards their satisfaction and happiness in life. The word “believe” is the key here. People believe that buying more and more things will make them happy, when in fact research has shown time and time again that this simply isn’t the case. What we do know for sure is that buying more and more unnecessary things is damaging our planet and contributing to global warming.
Sure, one person being less materialistic isn’t going to make a noticeable impact on the environment, but it will make a positive impact in that one life. Once entire nations start to understand the myths about what really makes individuals happy, the world will stand a fighting chance.
“Be The Difference You Want. To See In The World.” 
~Mahatma Gandi.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Social Construction of Religion

The second  aspect of death and dying that I find interesting is the social construction of religion and our notions about God.   Karen Armstrong explores how different religions' ideas (and even atheists' ideas) about God have changed and evolved.  Armstrong has helped give me perspective about the social construction of religion and she has helped me sift through what I find meaningful and what I find shallow about religion.   Similar to Nigel's book, Armstrong makes the case that much of what I find difficult to understand about religion is more of a modern creation and a product of individualism and the humanism of the post-Renaissance.  Click here for a review of Armstrong's book in the NY Times.

Lastly, The Evolution of God by Robert Wright helps to reconcile the idea of science and religion. Wright provides ways of making sense of both.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A subculture of violence

As we have been learning about the powerful effect of culture on each of us, we have also touched on the idea of subcultures. One subculture exists for thousands of Americans who live surrounded by poverty and violence everyday of their lives. This environment has profound effects on individuals as evidenced by the horrific video of the beating death of a teenager in Chicago. This story has been in the national news and even international news. The Chicago Tribune has done a series of article analyzing the violence. It is facinating and disturbing to see the impact of the schools and neighborhoods on these students. Many students feel a sense of ingroup -outgroup mentality that affects how they perceive the kids from different neighborhoods. Some have criticized the city for taking kids out of their own neighborhoods and making them travel to a different neighborhood to attend school. Chicago Public Radio had a facinating interview with residents who have faced violence in their own neighborhood. It reveals a lot about the powerful effects of culture on their mindset. I know most students at our school don't face this type of violence, but this story does illustrate how ingrained culture can become and how strongly we are shaped by our environment. How are you shaped? Can see through your own fishbowl to understand how culture is shaping you?