It is becoming increasingly clear that widespread consumption is wrecking havoc on the planet. But, if it’s making us happier then perhaps it’s worth the compromise, some argue. Strangely, that doesn’t appear to be the case, either. The spreading westernized belief that “more” possessions equates to more happiness hasn’t panned out. In fact, statistically, the First World now has more depression, alcoholism, crime, anxiety, obesity and overall dissatisfaction with life than was reported 50 years ago. What if “more” isn’t “more” in terms of consumption? Recent research is now shedding light on the phenomenon.
These studies suggest that our Stone Age brains, or what scientists refer to as the “primitive” brain is evolved to want more, but not necessarlily to ENJOY more. For example, Brain scans by Emory University revealed that the reward-chemical dopamine is released when we spot a product and consider buying it. Interestingly, only the anticipation releases dopamine. After the item is bought, the high often evaporates within minutes, and the purchaser may be indifferent to having one more item or even suffer from “buyer’s remorse”.
Last year Bonn researchers used brain scanning to show that humans don’t want lots of stuff, so much as they want MORE stuff than others. This is a confusing, scarcity paradigm that we share with monkey’s and other primates. The study found that whether or not people made big paychecks, for example, was much less of a motivating factor than whether they made MORE than their coworkers. In other words, winning the arbitrary “competition” appears to be more important than the reward itself.
John Naish, author of the forthcoming book “Enough: Breaking Free From the World of More”, eloquently ponders the predicament of a “civilized” society living in such a paradoxical state.
Our primitive brains…got us down from the trees and around the world, through ice ages, famines, plagues and disasters, into our unprecedented era of abundance. But they never had to evolve an instinct that said, ‘enough’.”
Instead, our wiring constantly, subliminally urges us: “Want. More. Now.” Western civilisation wisely reined in this urge for thousands of years with an array of cultural conventions, from Aristotle’s Golden Mean (neither too much, nor too little) to the Edwardian table-saying: “I have reached an elegant sufficiency and anything additional would be superfluous’.”
But he warns that our culture of consumerism has ditched these lofty ideals to our own detriment. Our primitive desires are constantly being “pinged” into overdrive by a sophisticated system that grows more subtle and clever by the moment.
“It got us to the point where we created everything we need as a basis for contentment. Now it’s rushing us past the tipping point, beyond which getting more makes life worse rather than better. And it’s making our brains respond more weirdly than ever. Our old wiring may condemn us to keep striving ever harder until finally we precipitate our dissatisfied demise.”
He advises that more of would find greater satisfaction if we learn “the comfortable art of ‘enough’ in this overstuffed world”. Hewarns that advertisers take advantage of our primitive wiring. One big thing to watch out for is subconsciously wanting things due to celebrity endorsements. In theory, we understand that they’re just being paid to say they love something, but in practice our brains aren’t wired to really differentiate.
Research shows that one of the most powerful ways to stimulate more buying is celebrity endorsement. Neurologists at Erasmus University in Rotterdam report that our ability to weigh desirability and value doesn’t function normally if an item is endorsed by a well-known face. This lights up the brain’s dorsal claudate nucleus, which is involved in trust and learning. Areas linked to longer-term memory storage also fire up. Our minds overidentify with celebrities because we evolved in small tribes. If you knew someone, then they knew you. If you didn’t attack each other, you were probably pals.
Our minds still work this way, giving us the idea that the celebs we keep seeing are our acquaintances. And we want to be like them, because we’ve evolved to hate being out of the in-crowd. Brain scans show that social rejection activates brain areas that generate physical pain, probably because in prehistory tribal exclusion was tantamount to a death sentence. And scans by the National Institute of Mental Health show that when we feel socially inferior, two brain regions become more active: the insula and the ventral striatum. The insula is involved with the gut-sinking sensation you get when you feel that small. The ventral striatum is linked to motivation and reward. To stave off the pain of feeling second-rate, we feel compelled to barricade ourselves behind evermore social acquisitions. That kept our ancestors competitively stretching for the next rung of social evolution, but in modern society it has us locked into an endless cycle of disappointment.
Fortunately, there are ways to go about PROOFING YOUR BRAIN.
1. Change your mindset to “postmore” by challenging culture’s ingrained assumption that “more” of everything is automatically better.
2. Grow your gratitude. Our poor, starved, frozen ancestors would cry tears of joy if they suddenly landed in our culture of abundance. Fostering our appreciation of this bounty can also block the consumerist “cool” pressure to deride so many of our fine, workable possessions as “so last year”.
3. Be enough. We’re constantly told that we aren’t rich enough, glam enough, cool enough, networked enough, etc. This has a powerful insidious effect on our primitive, socially competitive brain circuits. It’s like a toxic substance that turns rational brains into needy toddlers wanting “more, more, more!
Posted by Rebecca Sato.
*Portions of this post are extracts from the forthcoming book “Enough: Breaking Free From the World of More” to be published January 24, 2008.