There are some things that all the worlds religions kind of agree on- almost as if in the distillation of spiritual wisdom of the the millennia, certain concepts were inescapable. One of these is our attitude towards possessions. Quite simply, they are more often than not regarded as an obstacle to enlightenment, not a path towards it.
Perhaps the most hard core religious response to the accumulation of wealth and possessions was Jesus- we all know the biblical passages and the perenthetical BUT we have added on to each and every one of them. It remains one of the great human paradoxes as to how Consumer Capitalism has been able to grow in a western culture dominated by Christianity- not just in spite of our faith, but almost because of the way we live it out. We have come to believe that Jesus is at heart a white middle class respectable home owner.
There was a brilliant article by George Monbiot in The Guardian yesterday that opened all this up again for me. He took a long look at consumerism, sharing some research about the impact of materialism on well being, sociability and mental health. He pulls no punches; Worldly ambition, material aspiration, perpetual growth: these are a formula for mass unhappiness.
Monbiot quotes a lot of research into the impact of materialism- here are a few examples;
There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness. But research conducted over the past few years seems to show causation. For example, aseries of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. As they become less materialistic, it rises.
In one study, the researchers tested a group of 18-year-olds, then re-tested them 12 years later. They were asked to rank the importance of different goals – jobs, money and status on one side, and self-acceptance, fellow feeling and belonging on the other. They were then given a standard diagnostic test to identify mental health problems. At the ages of both 18 and 30, materialistic people were more susceptible to disorders. But if in that period they became less materialistic, they became happier.
In another study, the psychologists followed Icelanders weathering their country’s economic collapse. Some people became more focused on materialism, in the hope of regaining lost ground. Others responded by becoming less interested in money and turning their attention to family and community life. The first group reported lower levels of wellbeing, the second group higher levels.
These studies, while suggestive, demonstrate only correlation. But the researchers then put a group of adolescents through a church programme designed to steer children away from spending and towards sharing and saving. The self-esteem of materialistic children on the programme rose significantly, while that of materialistic children in the control group fell. Those who had little interest in materialism before the programme experienced no change in self-esteem.
Another paper, published in Psychological Science, found that people in a controlled experiment who were repeatedly exposed to images of luxury goods, to messages that cast them as consumers rather than citizens and to words associated with materialism (such as buy, status, asset and expensive), experienced immediate but temporary increases in material aspirations, anxiety and depression. They also became more competitive and more selfish, had a reduced sense of social responsibility and were less inclined to join in demanding social activities. The researchers point out that, as we are repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and constantly described by the media as consumers, these temporary effects could be triggered more or less continuously.
A third paper, published (paradoxically) in the Journal of Consumer Research, studied 2,500 people for six years. It found a two-way relationship between materialism and loneliness: materialism fosters social isolation; isolation fosters materialism. People who are cut off from others attach themselves to possessions. This attachment in turn crowds out social relationships.
As we read these studies, we instinctively know them to be true; there are no surprises here. Perhaps this is because of some kind of spiritual residue left in our psyches from all those religious people who made these discoveries previously. Perhaps also each generation has to learn it anew.
However, we in the West are more than pilgrims who have wandered off into some consumer-bog, we have become hostages.
A few years ago I read Pete Ward’s excellent book ‘Liquid Church’, in which he suggested that ‘rather than condemn the shopper as materialist Liquid Church would take shopping seriously as a spiritual exercise.’ What Ward was seeking to do was to get the church to engage fully with the culture we are part of- to flow in its veins. I found this idea very helpful at the time- it enabled me to move from a fixed blinkered position which saw culture dominated by consumerism as universally bad (despite my full participation within it) towards a deliberate attempt to read culture through its patterns of acquisition. So if you look hard at lots of the advertisements we are bombarded with you will start to see the yearning behind the selling. What the advertisers are trying to do is to connect us with something beyond the physical aspect of the object, into the meaning it brings into our lives- so a car is not a good piece of engineering, it is a symbol of freedom, of self expression, of celebration of our lives.
Having understood this however; having looked again at our culture through its predominant consumer characteristics, where does this take us? I am more and more convinced that it takes us towards one thing only- the need to become engaged critics. Enraged critics even.
Let us turn over some tables in the temple.
Which brings us to Christmas again.
I know, I know, the calls to make Christmas less consumer-driven are getting a bit old. I have been banging on about it on this blog for years. Lighten up a little! Have some fun! There is nothing wrong with spending a bit more at Christmas after all.
Except, as our religious forefathers knew, and as Monbiot has underlined, let us not kid ourselves that any of this is making us happier. Let us not suggest that buying lots of stuff (even for others) is making us more sociable, more loving, more empathetic, more caring.
Rich and poor alike are caught up in this addictive destructive cycle. What would it mean to be clean?
What would it mean to be free?