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Consumerism may be defined as a belief system that promotes high and rising levels of the personal consumption of material goods and services among a large segment of the population, ascribing to consumption a central role in promoting individual happiness. It is also associated with the view that the main goal of the economy should be to meet the (freely chosen) consumption decisions of people in the most efficient way.
It can be argued that economic development necessarily leads to consumerism. According to this view, the inherent competitiveness of people—which makes them try to stay ahead of, or at least to keep up with, the consumption of others—induces people to consume far beyond what is necessary for them, and to give consumption more importance in their lives when economic advancement makes this possible. This does not follow, however, since people need not increase their consumption significantly or attach much importance to consumption if they react to economic growth by increasing their leisure time (rather than to producing and consuming more) or to devoting more resources to nonrival consumption goods (like museums and public parks), or if they compete in spheres other than consumption. This appears to be confirmed by the fact that despite the wide reach of consumerism in the contemporary world, there are significant variations in its intensity (between, say, the United States and Europe). Indeed, explanations of the emergence and growth of consumerism in the past have been sought in the weakening of traditional religious values and in the efforts of rising commercial and industrial interests to increase their profits by increasing the demand for their products. The spread of consumerism around the world, including to less-developed countries, can be explained in terms of globalization made possible in large part by technological changes that allow the easier spread of information (thereby strengthening what has been called the international demonstration effect) and by free market economic policies (such as free trade and fewer labor market regulations, which seek to allow consumers to obtain goods at lower prices).
Consumerism has been criticized by many, including religious leaders, moral philosophers, socialists, and environmentalists, for: diverting people’s attention from arguably more noble goals, such as spiritual development; saving less and thereby slowing down economic growth that can benefit society; making people self-centered and willing to do less for others in society who are less fortunate than themselves; exacerbating inequality by inducing the poor to reduce saving and human capital formation, become more indebted, and accept an inequitable socioeconomic order; and harming the natural environment. However, it has also had its defenders. The critics have been dismissed as elitist in not recognizing the democratic appeal of the spread of consumerism and its ability to give pleasure, even of an artistic and spiritual kind, and of failing to show why some goods are necessities and others are luxuries. Consumerism has been applauded for providing people with incentives for hard work to improve their lives, for keeping profits up by causing a growth in the aggregate demand for goods and services, and for being the driving force for economic growth and for all the benefits it brings about.
While much of this debate has focused on the appropriate meaning of “the good life” and on the effects of consumerism on society, a recent literature, making use of self-reported happiness surveys, addresses directly whether higher levels of income and consumption actually make people happier by their own reckoning. This literature suggests that although the rich report higher levels of happiness than the poor in a given society, across countries increases in material well-being do not make people significantly happier beyond a certain threshold level of real income, and that in economically advanced countries increases in income and consumption do not significantly increase happiness. The finding that the growth of luxury consumption has not led to increases in happiness has been explained in a number of ways. Since people get habituated to higher levels of living and consumption norms, and because more goods and services are required to satisfy the same needs as average income increases (for instance people need better clothing to be socially acceptable), higher actual levels of consumption need not make them happier. To the extent that people consume more to obtain higher status by consuming more than others they expend more effort and experience more stress without improving their position because others do the same. The quest for more consumption leaves people less time to enjoy what they consume, less time for friends and family, and causes them to lose social connectedness, having an adverse effect on their happiness.
- Crocker, David C., and Toby Linden, eds. 1998. Ethics of Consumption: The Good Life, Justice and Global Stewardship. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Frank, Robert. 1999. Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess. New York: Free Press.
- Scitovsky, Tibor.  1992. The Joyless Economy: An Inquiry into Human Satisfaction and Consumer Dissatisfaction. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Stearns, Peter N. 2001. Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of Desire. London: Routledge.
- Twitchell, James B. 2002. Living It Up: America’s Love Affair with Luxury. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Veblen, Thorstein.  1998. The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.
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