Tag Archives: happiness

Consumed

Mainstream news organizations seem to be discovering anti-consumerism.  A couple of articles have appeared recently in the New York Times focusing on the ways in which the deepening recession is impacting Americans’ consumption patterns.  In a piece in the business section of the paper, for instance, the lack of correlation between purchases of material objects and happiness is noted.

The background, of course, is that the economic downturn has made it harder and harder for the U.S. middle class to stay on the treadmill of work and consumption that they’ve been persuaded to climb onto by decades of Madison Avenue advertising.  Money, the article argues, is far better spent on experiences (particularly ones with a social component) than on material things, since the latter quickly lose their aura of newness and become simply a drag, while experiences continue to resonate in our memories even after they are over.

But I think that the Times article makes a key mistake.  By linking the anti-consumerist movement to the economic downturn, it suggests that resistance to frenetic consumption is a product of forced austerity.  It well may be in some instances, but this perspective is likely to cement the association between the environmental movement and self-flagellating, hair shirt-wearing, humorless, style-deficient killjoys.  The point about happiness and the turn away from the hollowness of the consumer lifestyle gets lost in the very real sufferings created by the recession, about which the Times recently ran another article.  The recession may be leading families to stay at home playing scrabble more than previously, but it’s also leading to more grinding, quiet desperation and to more domestic abuse.  This is not a particularly silver lining.

Another problem with the Times article is that it treats our collective ambivalence about consumption as if it were a recent phenomenon.  In fact, such attitudes are rife in popular culture, and have been for a long time.  It’s not just Woody in Hollywood’s Toy Story 3 who notices that we’ve created a soulless culture of disposability.  Such an awareness is virtually ubiquitous, one might even say constitutive, of Hollywood.  From the days of Bladerunner and The Terminator, our major culture industry has been quite willing to limn our fear that the gadgets we create and then discard will bite back.

In a brilliant presentation at the Grad Center last spring (a brief summary of which you can find here), Professor Patricia Yaeger discussed the way in which films such as these represent our collective hopes and fears around consumption.  Yaeger spoke in particular about our fascination with robots, who provide us with anthropomorphized incarnations of our consumer fantasies that the things we create might somehow provide us with meaningful emotional relationships.  At the end of the day, however, as Marx pointed out long ago, commodities are just other people’s alienated labor.  They remain alien to us, and also ineluctibly linked to forms of exploitation – as well, it should be added, as environmental degradation.

Today, the issue of environmental collapse seems increasingly prominent in our collective meditations on consumption.  Peculiar, then, that the New York Times article didn’t focus at all on the environmentalist imperative behind campaigns to diminish consumption.  Perhaps the author was afraid of being painted as a killjoy.  But the point is that less consumption actually tends to increase happiness (once the basic requirements of life such as food and a safe dwelling are secured, of course), as long as it’s linked to deepening social networks.  And, of course, it’s also key to preventing runaway climate change.

Here’s an excellent report from the New Economic’s Foundation that underlines precisely these points.  It’s called Are You Happy?

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under environment

Pedagogy of the Oppressors

This is the first of an occasional series of posts on the search for a high school for my daughter in the New York City area.  Unfortunately I haven’t chronicled this entire experience, but I will be including selected vignettes of adventures we’ve had over the last four months or so of the school search in order to capture reflections on this harrowing experience.

I want to document this because it has been by far the most intense and unpleasant ordeal I’ve undergone while living in New York City – which is not exactly an easy place to live at the best of times.  In fact, according to a recent survey, NYC ranks last among the many states in the U.S. in terms of happiness.  But then perhaps happiness is overrated.  There are certainly a lot of bizarre and sometimes quite amusing elements mixed into the NYC school search ordeal.  Moreover, although I’m sure that this experience is highly anomalous, as a limit case I suspect it has quite a lot to reveal about the extreme circumstances to which youths are increasingly subjected in the precarious world we currently inhabit.

At any rate, last night we attended a reception for a NJ-based boarding school at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel here in NYC.  We’re looking at boarding schools as well as private and public schools in NYC.  Since public high schools in the city are now so selective, I want to make sure that my daughter gets accepted somewhere and so I’m applying almost everywhere (at least that’s how it often feels).  Apparently boarding schools have a lot more financial aid to give, and so we’ve been encouraged to apply there as well as to so-called day schools in the city.

There also seems to be a trend towards boarding schools among young people in the city.  My daughter, like most of her friends, expressed interest in going away to one, the idea being that as an only child she pines for the company of an extended network of siblings, something she’s likely to find at a boarding school, in theory at least.  I think it’s also part of the desire to grow up more quickly, to have the teen equivalent of a kind of glamorous Carrie Bradshaw cosmopolitan life.

The reception at the Waldorf Astoria certainly seemed to promise an experience along those lines.  The hotel itself was straight out of an Edith Wharton novel.  Most of the people there seemed like movie stars or prostitutes or both.  I half expected to see Bono and Jeffrey Sachs smoozing with Angelina Jolie in an alcove of the lobby.  I held onto my daughter’s arm very tightly.

The young people and parents who turned up for the reception also all seemed very urbane, and I was struck by the very high percentage of African-American families in attendance.  The reception was held in “Peacock Alley,” which felt just about gilded enough.  Rather ironic given the parlous state of the U.S. economy today.

Once school officials began making presentations, though, the hollowness of private school rhetoric began to show through this gilded facade.  The head of the school talked a lot about “tangible signs of progress” at the school, by which he seemed to mean that they have a lot of money and have been throwing up a lot of buildings.  As he ceded his place to a string of other school officials and teachers, I was struck by the fact that all the people tapped to speak were Anglo-American, a very unfortunately choice given the predominantly non-white composition of the potential applicant pool.  Why would any of us want to entrust our children to people who seemed not to have thought about the need to integrate their institution and their public face?

The various administrators and teachers who spoke talked about how the school embodied strong values and community.  As my daughter pointed out in a frustrated aside after the reception, this was ridiculous.  All schools have values and community.  What kind of values and community is, of course, the question.

After the administrators held forth, a series of students were invited to speak.  One young couple perhaps gave an unwitting clue to the school’s values.  They mentioned that they went from the school to an elite ivy league university, from whence they went on to work at Lehman Brothers, and now, after being fired when the firm collapsed, work at Goldman Sachs.  The point, I suppose, was to underline the illustrious career trajectory of graduates from the school.  It didn’t seem to have dawned on anyone that these blithe young spirits had come to rest in two of the most piratical institutions in the U.S.  So much for instilling values!

Leave a comment

Filed under education, Uncategorized, urbanity