Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, changed everything for Americans after World War II. He took his uncle’s theory that human beings aren’t nearly as rational as we think we are, that we constantly make irrational decisions based on “unconscious drives.” He believed that if the Nazis, using not reason but appealing to the basic human emotions of want and fear, could manipulate people during wartime, then the same could be used by business owners and politicians to sway people during peacetime. Bernays called his new idea “public relations,” and he was soon dubbed the “father of American advertising.”
In his book Propaganda, Edward Bernays writes:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. … In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, … we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons … who pull the wires which control the public mind.[i]
In the last century, with the help of the twin forces of urbanization and industrialization, the US economy shifted from a needs-based culture to one of desire, and “consumptionism” was fostered by the big business tycoons and politicians in Washington, DC. Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers, was quoted in the Harvard Business Review as saying, “People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”[ii] Any wonder why predetermined obsolescence became the M.O. of businesses?
Today, most of our advertising is propaganda! It plays not to our pre-frontal cortex but to a deeper, less logical part of our brain. As John Mark Comer asserts, it’s “intentionally designed to lie to you – to get you to believe that if you will only buy this or that product, then you will be happy. Or at least happier.”[iii] But as many psychologists have pointed out, our happiness has gone down as our wealth and technology have risen. Gregg Easterbrook has quipped, “Americans and Europeans have ever more of everything except happiness.”[iv]
Lest you doubt that Americans are spending money (often money they don’t have) on things they don’t need, consider that the average US house size has nearly tripled since the 1950s[v] while the number of family members has declined. Almost 10% of US households are currently renting a storage unit[vi] and “65% of self-storage renters have a garage in their home, 47% have an attic, and 33 percent have a basement. This suggests that Americans have more things than their homes allow them.”[vii]
Let’s face it, we have a lot of “stuff,” too much “stuff,” more “stuff” than we need and we go out and buy more “stuff.” But the real problem isn’t “stuff!” In John Mark Comer’s words, “It’s that (1) we put no limit on stuff due to our insatiable human desire for more. And (2) we think we need all sorts of things to be happy when, in actuality, we need very few.”[viii] Materialism is wreaking havoc on our emotional health, stealing our money, and robbing us of joy. Too much “stuff” prevents us from enjoying life and relationships with family and friends. It’s time to purge and simplify.
So, what should we do with this realization? Can we really break free from deeply ingrained practices of Western culture? Should we retreat to a monastical lifestyle, join Thoreau in simple living in the woods or plunge headlong into minimalism? Consider these practical action points:
Realize that much of advertising speaks to your wants and fears
Richard Foster challenges all of us this way, “Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry.”[ix] Can you spot the lie in most ads? What is the underlying message they are trying to communicate? Remember, it’s our own discontentment and “wanting more” that drives us to buy into their lie.
Take inventory of your “stuff” and honestly evaluate what it’s doing to your wallet, your emotional health, and your time. What haven’t you used in months (or years)? What no longer brings you joy but adds stress to your life? What not only takes up space but keeps us from what matters most in life? The goal shouldn’t be to just clean out the garage, closet or storage unit, but to declutter your life.
Before you buy an item, or continue keeping something you already have, evaluate its real cost
Not only is there the initial purchase price of an item, but what does it or is it going to cost you in money and time to finance, store, move, maintain, clean, organize, insure, register and/or fuel it? How much more stress is added to your life by more debt and more worktime to pay for it? How often will you use this item (determining the cost-per-time-used is often quite revealing)? Will this item enhance your life or detract from what really matters? Will it speed up the pace of your life or slow it down? By spending the money on this thing now, how will it impact your net worth and achieving your future financial goals (i.e., the opportunity cost)?
Don’t buy on impulse
Ask yourself, “do I really need this item?” Exercising self-control and giving yourself a set time to think about a specific purchase often allows the rational mind to overpower the “must-have” emotional desire of it. The larger the cost, the longer you should wait. Curbing the desire for and not tying your identity to the latest (you fill in the blank – model, fashion item, etc.), will help squelch impulsive expenditures. When a purchase is needed, buy quality items that will last. Buying chic but cheaply made stuff isn’t saving you money in the long run, but buying a used well-made item can.
Learn to borrow, share and rent
I have a good quality power washer I let my friends use. They in turn let me borrow a “widget” they own. Sites like VRBO, Turo, Spinlister or Fat Llama allow you to rent all kinds of “stuff” (or rent your own stuff to provide some income).
Assess where you’re trying to get your happiness
While our brains release endorphins and dopamine when we make a purchase, the “happiness” is short-lived. “Sales” can even give a greater neurotransmitter surge and online shopping can also ignite the brain chemicals another way as we wait for the product to arrive – we’re expecting or anticipating that future reward. Eventually, the glitter and glamour of both “buying” and “stuff” wears off and we naturally look for more. But happiness will never come through “stuff;” “stuff” can never fill the deep longing in our soul. Is the pursuit of happiness our end goal or is it a byproduct of doing what is right?
We need to realize how prevalent materialism and overconsumption is in our society. It is based on mind manipulation that often takes our time, energy and money and can give us stress. Proper management of our “stuff” is necessary for our mental fortitude and our financial portfolios. Decluttering and not buying more “stuff” may be countercultural but will bring health and freedom in the long run.
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[i] Edward Bernays, Propaganda, with an introduction by Mark Crispin Miller (Brooklyn, NY: Ig Publishing, © 1928 by Edward Bernays, Renewed 1955 by Edward Bernays, © 2005 Introduction by Mark Crispin Miller), p. 37-38.
[iii] John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry (United States: WaterBrook, an imprint of Random House, © 2019), p. 186. I am indebted to John Mark Comer for various content in this blog, derived from his chapter titled “Simplicity”
[iv] Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (New York: Random House, © 2003), p. 163.
[viii] Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, p. 187.
[ix] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 92.
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