Does our money-obsessed world really make us happy?

Ikea trolleys

Trying to buy in to the capitalist dream will not make us happy. Trevor under a Creative Commons Licence

When critiquing capitalism, we often look at poverty, justice and fairness as ways to undermine the current capitalist project. We look at how the governments of Western states are dominated by corporate interests. But we rarely look at what impact capitalism has had on our well-being and happiness.

It’s a damning indictment of capitalism’s ‘success’ that we are no closer to a Utopian society – if anything, capitalism is increasingly driving us away from it.

The reality of life under capitalism is a long way from the image we are sold by advertising companies and corporations trying to unload consumer goods en masse.

This is how capitalism presents happiness: we are, or need to be, ‘young’ (even if we’re old) and ‘beautiful’ (in the conventional Western framework of beauty – so, very white). We should have minimal body fat, flaunt the equally slender and beautiful partner on our arm, and enjoy partying from dusk ‘til dawn in hedonistic fashion. We have, or should have, lots of sex, and we should aim to be surrounded by ever more consumer goods to keep us entertained. Achieving this, we are, essentially, ‘rich’.

Yet the pursuit of this lifestyle leaves many of us feeling unhappy, disempowered and unfulfilled. No matter how hard a lot of people work, they will not bridge the income inequality gap, nor be able to afford enough consumer products to feel content. Being content doesn’t exist in a world of excess.

What we’re often left with is something that couldn’t be further from the groomed, chiselled people we see on TV. Real life under white, capitalist patriarchy is, unfortunately, far less sexy. In fact, it’s characterized by high levels of obesity, alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness.

This, as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett note in their must-read book The Spirit Level, is what capitalism and related inequality are doing. One of their reasons for this unhappiness is that we ‘equate outward wealth with inner worth’, which leaves those who aren’t living the glamour lifestyle feeling unworthy.

People are derided for being fat (especially women) despite the fact that society has engrained over-consumption and excess in us. Many abuse drink and drugs because they need a release from the fact that they are ‘willing slaves’ on a soul-destroying capitalist grind.

Even if we do have the huge wealth needed to live the capitalist dream, most people are working longer hours in order to make it happen, and thus have less and less time to enjoy their wealth. This is one of capitalism’s great paradoxes.

The cost of us working towards this goal? We’re never satisfied and we never feel like we’re working hard enough, which many find stressful. It also makes it difficult for those who are unemployed to feel self-worthy, given that we equate worth with wealth. People look down on those with fewer material goods, all the while trying to keep up with the Joneses.

This links to a wider problem. By keeping up with those around us, we actually want to better them. Capitalism has created a ruthless competition which emphasizes the idea of the ‘individual’, in many regards a Western construct.

In many pre-colonial societies outside of the West, the idea of the individual, beauty and ego were alien (Frantz Fanon describes these as Mediterranean values). In South Africa, for example, one finds the idea of Ubuntu, which has a more community-based ethos.

Desmond Tutu has described it as speaking ‘particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself.’ The distinction between this way of life and modern capitalism couldn’t be starker.

With the individual in the centre of the universe, the sense of a broader community is minimized, as people see those outside their family unit as competitors in the rat race to happiness. We are conditioned to be lonely individuals, in a battle with everyone around us. Is it a surprise, then, that we’re not as happy as we pretend to be on Instagram or Facebook?

Rather than listening to our natural instincts to love and trust (The Spirit Level notes that in most capitalist, Western societies, distrust is incredibly high), we’re creating boundaries between ourselves and others in a bid to live the consumer dream.

No matter how much sex we’re having, how many holidays we take, how many goods we consume, we may not be happy. The problem is that capitalism sells us happiness as something that can be bought. It cannot. We look for love through capitalism, rather than from our immediate surroundings. We try to validate ourselves with designer clothes or parties.

The fact remains that we’d all be a lot better off if we lived in a society that placed less emphasis on the individual and more emphasis on communities and the collective. Perhaps Desmond Tutu is onto something and we should all embrace our will to connect with other people, rather than shutting ourselves off in a bid to beat our neighbour in an endless and unfulfilled race to the top.

There is a lot of talk about changing society through revolution. Maybe the starting point is a revolution in ourselves, whereby we try to break away from our individualistic self and love the world around us, not the consumer produce we can buy.