Being new year and all I thought it was time for a little self reflection. The world today often feels like it is falling apart, the rest of the time that it is simply grinding along without making much progress. How much of that is to do with us? And would changing ourselves really make much of a difference in the world?
According to surveys of subjective happiness, the UK has been trending upwards for the last 30 years or so. But I think it would be fairly well accepted to say that people feel they work longer and harder than their parents and get to spend less time with their families even if they have greater material wealth. Maybe the trend says more about what people define happiness as rather than an “objective” state of mind.
I think the major change in people during the last half decade or so is the rise of the materialist culture and consumerism. Maybe you could trace the trend back to the end of the second world war, after rationing and shortages luxury items took on a new meaning. Luxuries came pre-earnt as a reward for winning against evil, businesses were quick to capitalise on this and took steps to encourage the practice.
As prosperity grew so did people’s ability to afford luxuries and the baby boom ensured that the cultural genes of this proto-consumerism were widely spread. Now there’s nothing inherently wrong about wanting to better your life and make it comfortable, but when it becomes the measure by which you judge your life something has gone wrong. Apply that thinking across a whole society and you have real problems. Personally I think the consumerism culture as we see it today can be traced back to television through advertising and celebrity.
Advertising these days is highly targeted towards our subconscious. Advertising firms will hire behavioral psychologists to help optimise the sounds, colours and images in their advert to drive it into your brain whether you want it there or not. You might hate the “go compare” adverts but when you need to find insurance that irritating hook that’s been playing in your mind on and off for the last few months will gently re-surface without your bidding.
It doesn’t help that the very act of watching television puts your mind into a suggestive state. The flicker of a television will lull your brain into a slow alpha state usually associated with meditation or relaxation. As your brain is trained to spot differences, every time a shot cuts to another your brain scrabbles to re-asses the scene in front of it making it hard to concentrate or analyse information.
With your ability to rationally assess what is being displayed to you depressed, by the time the adverts come on you are left to rely on an emotional or instinctual response. Advertisers find it incredibly easy to exploit emotion by appealing to a lack of self worth for beauty products, fear in the case of insurance or “family values” if you look at things like those new Wii adverts. It’s easy to think that you’re somehow immune from their effects, but it’s more like you dont even know you’re infected.
If it is easy to influence adults to buy a product then it is easier still to get to children. Advertising to kids pays double in that you can get them to buy your product and also train up a future generation of consumers. A child that watches TV from say 4 when they get home from school till 7 when they have dinner, will spend about 50 minutes watching adverts filled with kids with more stuff than they have. They are exercising little choice but get imprinted with the need for any product that is shown to them enough times. To say that that won’t have an effect on how they live the rest of their lives seems rather naive.
The celebrity culture also goes a long way in explaining consumerism. Humans are still essentially herd animals, during our evolution there have been strong pressures that forge us into groups. We need to protect ourselves from predators, hunt as a pack to kill large prey and divide up tasks to become more efficient. Within such a structure it pays to copy the most successful. When new and complex tasks are required to survive it is easier to learn from someone more successful and that requires a close emotional attachment to your leader.
This inbuilt instinct comes counterproductive when the successful people you start to bond to are people you don’t know and whose lives are so far removed from your own that you have little to learn from them. Celebrity culture has grown up around that hardwired instinct and can be used to get people to buy even more things that they don’t need and encourage a feeling of inadequacy as we are bombarded with images of success we are not able to achieve.
As well as judging ourselves in comparison to the wealth, appearance and possessions of celebrities this mindset has infected how we interact with other “normal” people. It makes us narcissistic, paranoid and greedy. We end up trapping ourselves in debt and obligation in insurance for our faster cars, mortgages for our bigger houses and paying for trinkets that we simply don’t need. The result for most is wealth, but needing to work a job you probably don’t enjoy for the majority of your time to afford it.
Even if we have better diagnostic tools for recognising it and better therapies for treating it it is no surprise that there is a massive increase in mental health issues in a world where we are focused on others rather than ourselves. I think this trend to compare ourselves to others has a lot to do with the fractured society that we live in today.
Where there is endless choice in the clothes and products we buy we are encouraged to find things that express our individuality. With so many options for things that make you unique, it is harder and harder to find anything you share in common with people. We are segregating into ever smaller divisions. Hipsters, emos, chavs, goths, jocks, trendies, wasters the list goes on, they are all people but get separated based on common clothing, that is the state of our schools and colleges today.
No longer are we united as a members of a town, a class or a nation. We’re just people milling around looking for people like us. We see more of people who we appear to share nothing in common with us because we’ve been blinded to the similarities that we might share, and it makes us feel, lonely and depressed.
Whereas the worries of the last century were of world war or nuclear armageddon, issues decided in smoke filled rooms far from the influence of the average citizen, today’s problems are ones that we all contribute to. Global warming, the economy and the breakup of society, these are all things that we’re supposed to be able to change. But we feel isolated and are constantly reminded of how small we are in comparison to these vast global problems.
Politicians have been playing on this sense of weakness for decades, they are unable to give us a truly better world, but they can save us from the fears that we can do nothing about. The shock doctrine has been used to great effect, building up anxiety about 9/11 and launching a wars in Afghanistan Iraq, wailing about the financial crash and shovelling vast wads of cash to the banks, the threat of terrorism being used to curb our civil liberties and fear of the deficit used to drive through a program of politically motivated, unjust and unproductive austerity.
It seems however that this spell is being broken, a populace that has remained meek for two decades is beginning to rise up and assert it’s power. Rather than being atomised, it turns out that the citizenry of this country actually have rather a lot in common. National strikes, occupations, student protests and riots are all gathering people that are unwilling to remain as chattel to be controlled.
Change is inevitable, but how much and how fast, and that depends on us. The world is hanging in the balance, there are many that would seek to tip the balance towards either a slow decline or a sudden collapse for their own benefit. It is up to us to tip the scales in the direction we want to see them go, we may not be powerful, but there are more of us than them.
2012 will be an interesting year, if the unrest we’ve seen in 2011 is anything to go by then it could be a rocky one too. But that simply means it will be an opportunity for real and lasting change for a system that has enslaved the many for the benefit of the few.