"A human being is part of a whole called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself,  his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." Albert Einstein

To have or to be? That is the question

“Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing.” Sylvia Plath

Can money ever buy you happiness? It may not be a question that we explicitly contemplate, but it’s the subtext to much of our behaviour.

Professor Richard Wiseman, in his counterargument to the pseudo-science of the self-help industry, references several studies which reveal that compulsive retail indulgences and gambling are anything but therapeutic.

In his book, ‘59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot’, Wiseman cites research where lottery winners have proved no happier than ordinary folk, and people who bought experiences proved happier than those who surrounded themselves with “stuff”. On the fallacy of the short-term nature of purchasing power (the power aptly lying in the lap of the producers not the consumers), Wiseman quotes psychologist David Myers:

“Thanks to our capacity to adapt to ever greater fame and fortune, yesterday’s luxuries can soon become today’s necessities and tomorrow’s relics.”

So there’s proof that money can’t buy happiness yet we persistently fall for the ads that sell us the seemingly idyllic lifestyle in the form of the latest car, mobile phone, fashion item or whatever we think will fill the spaces in our lives and the silence in our conversations, so uncomfortable and unfamiliar have we become with the idea of nothingness.

In his 1976 book, ‘To Have or to Be? The Nature of the Psyche’, German social psychologist, psychoanalyst, sociologist and humanistic philosopher Dr Erich Fromm traces our present day preoccupation with material possession to the Industrial Revolution, where “ we could feel that we were on our way to unlimited production and, hence, unlimited consumption; that technique made us omnipotent; that science made us omniscient”.

As history has shown, socialism and communism did indeed herald an age in which the achievement of wealth became synonymous with the achievement of happiness (even if that wasn’t the idealogical intent).

Our emotional well-being was inextricably tied to how much stuff our physical space amounted to. Consumerism became the new religion, one feverishly pursued in a manner of Sartrean “bad faith”, causing us to worship at the altar of the checkout and the production line, praying we’ll be saved from despair.

In his 2014 BBC documentary, ‘The Men Who Made Us Spend’, Jacques Peretti demonstrated how we’ve given up our souls to the advertising devils and the manipulations of PR. Or, applying Fromm’s religious analogy:

“Publicity paves the way to immortality and the public relations agents become the new priests.”

Peretti showed creativity at its worst as the ideas of gamification — rewards, achievements, challenges, points and competition — have been used by advertisers to sell us things we don’t need but that we so desperately desire in our quest for instantaneous gratification and meaning through posession.

We have Edward Bernays to thank for Public Relations. As expertly relayed in Adam Curtis’ documentary, 'The Century of Self — Happiness Machines', Bernays’ fundamental premise in launching the PR industry was to use it as a means of social control, managing the behaviour and the attitudes of the masses, based on his Uncle Freud’s idea that we are fundamentally motivated by our instincts, at the mercy of our unconscious forces.

The refrain that we have become mindless, irrational consumers is nothing new.

Fromm traced this bastardisation of the notion of life fulfillment back to the bourgeois age of the 17th and 18th centuries, when philosophers such as Hobbes reduced the idea of ‘profit the soul’ to pure profit, where “happiness is the continuous progress from one greed to another”.

Yet in 1976 Fromm held hope that we would emerge from this materialistic stupour, writing that the Great Promise of freedom through consumption as per the Industrial age failed “when we began awakening to the fact that we have all become cogs in the bureaucratic machine, with our thoughts, feelings and tastes manipulated by government and mass communications that they control.”

Peretti’s film showed just how far we haven’t come. The machines are faster, the advertising is smarter, yet we, tragically, are not, as evidenced by a global scale of debt and recession.

To apply Fromm’s perspective, this is emblematic of a greater social malaise:

“We are a society of notoriously unhappy people: lonely, anxious, depressed, destructive, dependent — people who are glad when we have killed the time we are trying so hard to save.”

Fromm was describing propaganda when he wrote that it’s “the methods by which critical judgement is destroyed, how the mind is lulled into submission by cliches, how people are made dumb because they become dependent and lose their capacity to trust their eyes and judgement. They are blinded to reality by the fiction they believe.”

That was in 1976. Almost forty years later, it seems that fiction still prevails.

Who are we and does it even matter?

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