The concept of happiness is used by brands as a hook to stimulate our consumption. But, does this mean that purchasing ten extra products will make us ten times happier?
Alejandro Álvarez’s wardrobe can be counted, and with absolute precision: three pairs of dress pants, two pairs of jeans, five shirts, three t-shirts, a pair of sneakers, another pair of reasonably formal shoes, and his flip-flops.
Three years ago, it wasn’t so easy to take this kind of inventory. Alejandro lived what he called “the chilango dream”: he lived in a house in the upscale Narvarte neighborhood of Mexico City, where he stored the possessions that he had accumulated over eight years, a golden retriever, a car, his bicycle – because of the “zero emissions” thing—, his Metro card, and books (lots of them). But one day he sold everything, and the most important objects of his three decades of life now fit into five suitcases.
He worked from home selling specialized construction material. He had a base salary of 23 thousand pesos a month, plus another 20 thousand in commissions, sometimes more, sometimes less.
“I remember a scene that seemed like it was out of a movie: I was taking a training course in New York, in a crappy hotel, but whatever, it was New York. We had gone clothes shopping, and I was thirty-one years old and thought to myself: ‘I’ve made it. This is as far as I’m going. Things won’t get any better.’”
Every mistake that Alejandro made translated into substantial monetary losses, and that got to him; plus he was bored, and to make matters worse, another scene out of a movie: he’d had medical studies done, and they indicated that he had a heart murmur, which terrified him.
Buyers fighting over merchandise during so-called Black Friday in the United States, a day when many businesses put their products on sale. Photo: Flickr / Magnet-Xataka
He was an engineer by trade, a calculator by conviction, and he estimated that if things went well he would die by the age of 50, but if he added the stress, the extra pounds, and his smoking habit, he knew it could be much sooner than that.
“If you do the thought experiment that ‘you have three years to live, what are you going to do with them,’ I was definitely not going to spend that time working.” A week after he got the lab results, his head buzzing with anxiety, the laboratory called to offer their sincere apologies: they has read his electrocardiogram wrong and he was actually in perfect health.
But the impression could not be undone. It cost him a huge effort, but he quit his job and embarked on a grand adventure. He traveled for 15 months, visiting two continents, seven countries, and 40 cities, all on a limited budget. Over the entire time he kept the same possessions he set out with. Well, not all of them: he lost camera that was stolen, and a pair of socks that he had to jettison after riding the rapids in Chile.
After the trip he went back to live in Mexico City, where he works again as a salesman, making half of what he used to earn. But he doesn’t care as much anymore; after his trip his priorities changed radically, and accumulating possessions is no longer at the top of his scale of values.
“I hate carrying and spending money that I don’t have. When you have things, you possess them, but they also possess you. For example, if you have a bike, it takes you places, but you also have to carry it around; if you ride it for 15 kilometers, you have to ride it back”.
The Easterlin paradox
42 years ago, the economist Richard Easterlin had an intuition: money isn’t life, it’s just vanity. This led him to do research to figure out whether economic growth translated into greater well-being, understood as happiness.
The results of his study in the United States led to the establishment of what is now known as the Easterlin paradox, which argues that in the short term, an increase in income does positively impact people’s perception of happiness, but that it is not sustainable over the long term; in other words, the feeling of happiness that money provides, after passing a certain threshold, fades away.
Stencil against consumerism on a wall outside a clothing store.
So, what does make us happy?
José de Jesús Salazar Cantú is a member of the National System of Researchers, and a professor in the Department of Economics at ITESM University, Monterrey campus. One day he was invited to participate in a debate about money and well-being, and while he was preparing his intervention, he came across an intriguing fact: Mexico, even with all its hardships, as he readily acknowledges, tends to get high scores in surveys that measure which are the happiest countries in the world.
He decided to research what it is that makes Mexicans happy, and he pinpointed three variables: leisure, income and health.
His findings, available in the paper “An economic model for happiness and its evidence in Mexico,” co-authored by Laura Arenas Dreger (bit.ly/Modelo_felicidad), show that people in Mexico, on the whole, base their happiness not on income, or on their amount of free time, but on the perception of being healthy.
“The effect of income on happiness in Mexico, statistically speaking, was not significant. It looks like being rich or poor in Mexico doesn’t make people happy or unhappy, or an increase or decrease in consumption does not make much of a difference in their happiness,” he said in a telephone interview.
From a marketing standpoint, however, there are strategies to generate emotional needs that are then met by purchasing a product that people don’t really need, explains Emmilú López, a communications graduate from ITESO and a specialist in branding. Since happiness is such a personal thing, brands standardize its definition and then tell you that their product can give this feeling, according to their definition of course.
Abraham Geifman, a digital strategist, agrees with Emmilú and adds that products that have no functional benefits are the ones that increase happiness the most as a collateral effect. He uses the example of chocolate, which is essentially a calorie bomb, so brands will tell you to forget about what you’re ingesting and focus on how good you’ll feel after that first bite.
How much is an hour with your child worth?
The day I called Emmilú to interview her about whether earning more money and being able to buy more would make her happier, she had received a telephone call that had upset her so much that she decided not to tell anyone.
She was just leaving her son’s cooking class (he’s in kindergarten) when the phone rang. It was a company representative on the other side, offering her a management position with an eye-opening salary.
Before she could say no, she had to think through the trade-offs. If she took the job she wouldn’t be able to go to cooking class with her son, or pick up her 8-year-old daughter from school, or have an ice-cream with them in the park.
“Maybe I’d stop worrying about money, I’d send them to any class I wanted, I’d buy them more stuff, but the truth is I don’t want to buy them more stuff. I’d rather give them my time.”
A Discovery Channel program documents the stories of people who suffer from what is known as compulsive hoarding syndrome, and how they struggle to overcome it.
It’s not that she sacrificed her professional life to fulfill her role as a mother: she simply readjusted it. She decided to break the stereotype of ‘successful woman’ that society had pushed on her: a job at a big company, with a good salary, supervising a lot of people and with very little free time. She has already been subjected, on several occasions, to an organizational culture that says that a good employee is one who is available 24 hours a day.
Statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) indicate that since 2009 Mexico has been the member with the highest average number of hours devoted work. In this sense, 94 percent of Mexican homes are estimated to be living in time-poverty.
Now, Emmilú has started up a network marketing business, where she can build her own model for success.
“When I started, even my mother, everyone told me: ‘What the matter with you?! You have a degree, a great résumé, why are you doing this?’ I’m doing it because I value my time.”
The Degrowth Theory
Even though there has been an increase in investment spending in the past few years, wealth in Mexico is generated by consumption; in other words, the lion’s share of the Gross Domestic Product in the country, and in the world in general, is generated by the collective spending of Mexican households, José de Jesús Salazar Cantú points out.
However, there is a school of political and economic thought that looks at things differently. In the 1970’s, the French economist Serge Latouche proposed the degrowth model that controls economic growth by decreasing consumption and production and favoring the conservation of the environment.
He advocates shorter workdays, which would mean less production. This implies that everyone would earn less, but expenses would also come down. With this, the model’s advocates contend, quality of life would increase.
Carlos Taibo, a Spanish author and political science professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, has focused his research on degrowth.
“My first point is that we have no choice but to look for other options, because I think that basic resources are being exhausted, which makes our frenzied consumption unsustainable.”
There is, at least, one fact that supports Carlos’ claims: for every ten tacos that we eat, there are ingredients to make another three, but these ingredients are wasted somewhere in the food chain, according to estimates of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Several FAO reports argue that the planet cannot produce so much food, and they are constantly launching campaigns to avoid food waste, of which 50 percent worldwide is discarded by households.
In fact, there is a tribe roaming the world called the freegans, made up of people who try to live without consuming, and recover good food from the trash.
Mago Marruen, in Buenos Aires, lives this lifestyle. He avoids money as much as possible by bartering. He, along with another person, founded the gratiferias, street markets that appear every weekend around the city, where people gather to exchange objects, or simply to take what they need free of charge.
“The first gratiferias were set up in people’s homes. One day we said: ‘Let’s take this out on the street and see what happens.’ People came, and at first they didn’t quite understand the concept, so we explained that there are enough clothes to dress the world five times over, so there’s no need to buy anything. They began asking if they could donate things. We ended up with way more than we had brought ourselves!”.
Under the slogan “Bring what you want (or nothing) and take what you want (or nothing)”, Gratiferias are places where everything is free. In this image, a women offers her belongings.
To live his life of “luxury,” Maurren claims to need about 170 Mexican pesos a day. He lives at a house that he inherited along with 15 other people, with whom he forms a community.
His mind doesn’t grasp the concept of trash, since he recirculates everything. He is a vegan, so his food waste is easily decomposed by the earth, and since he doesn’t use any grease to cook, he doesn’t need soap to wash the dishes.
In addition to the gratiferias, he told us about projects that exist around Buenos Aires to live without spending money. For example, Árboles Ciudad, or City Trees, is a website with a map of all the fruit trees in the city where you can pick fruit for free: people can add new locations easily, and search by fruit type or neighborhood (arbolesciudad.com.ar).
Or Compu-Fábrica, a place where people recover working computer parts and help users assemble a computer or repair their current device. And then there is Fabricicleta, a bike shop that assembles and repairs bicycles free of charge.
Getting away from consumption
Something that Alejandro Álvarez, Emmilú López, Carlos Taibo and Mago Marruen have in common is that they subject their consumption to reason. I asked all four of them, with no intention of putting them in a position of moral superiority, what they recommended to avoid compulsive shopping.
Alejandro was very practical. He felt that we often have no idea of how much stuff we have. He suggested taking inventory of all our possessions; maybe if we saw it on paper we would realize what we need and what we don’t.
Freegan Pony is the first and only restaurant in europe that serves food that was recovered from the trash. The restaurant gathers food waste and feeds the poor for free. Chefs change the menu every day, depending on what they find (or don’t) that same morning.
“I read spec sheets a lot, and I realize that almost anything works. The concept of brand, that ‘this is better than that,’ is an illusion, a very carefully constructed illusion, but an illusion all the same.”
Emmilú proposed making a conscious break with the concept of happiness that brands try to sell us, and recommended self-awareness as an alternative: having a clear idea of what we like, and based on that, making conscious decisions. She stressed being aware at all times.
For his part, Carlos Taibo suggested that we must work towards breaking the relationship between consumption and well-being, and recover our social lives without forgetting to respect the rights of the rest of our planet’s species.
“We must respect the inalienable sphere and complete freedom of the individual, but answers need to be of a collective nature, because the main issues that we face are collective”.
What Mago Marruen seeks is to inflict the least possible damage through his actions, out of respect for people, animals, and the environment. He sees his way of making decisions as a path taken gradually, but the important part is to set the goal of reducing our negative impact on the planet.
As he puts it: our journey through this world should make the least damage possible. m.