The Frontal Cortex

Unhappiness and Advertising

Here’s Seth Godin:

A journalist asked me, Most people have a better standard of living today than Louis XIV did in his day. So why are so many people unhappy?

What you have doesn’t make you unhappy. What you want does.

And want is created by us, the marketers.

Marketers trying to grow market share will always work to make their non-customers unhappy.

It’s interesting to note that marketers trying to maintain market share have a lot of work to do in reminding us that we’re happy.

I think it’s also important to note that our central nervous system conspires with advertisers to make us eternally unsatisfied. The key point is habituation: we very quickly adapt to sources of pleasure, so that the shiny new house/iPod/sports car/t-shirt/etc is taken for granted and stops making us happy. (You can also understand this in terms of dopamine neurons which cease firing in response to a rewarding stimulus once the reward becomes predictable.) The economist Philip Brickman refers to this process as the “hedonic treadmill”. Because of our ungrateful brain, we are wired to always want more no matter how much we already have. This is why levels of happiness in America, Western Europe and Japan have largely flat-lined over the last fifty years, even as material wealth has dramatically increased.

Obviously, the surfeit of ads doesn’t help, especially since many ads emphasize positional goods, or products whose appeal is that they signal your social position. When someone wears a Rolex watch – a classic positional good – they don’t make themselves happy (their brain has already adapted to the luxury good) but they do manage to raise the expectations of everybody wearing less expensive watches. These people now feel inferior, since their Timex has been devalued by the costlier item. Multiply this same psychological phenomenon across a full range of consumer products – from clothes to cars, stereos to shoes – and you can begin to see why having more doesn’t make us happier. As Adam Smith observed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, “Riches leave a man always as much and sometimes more exposed than before to anxiety, to fear and to sorrow.”

Comments

  1. #1 HolfordWatch
    August 20, 2008

    I have negligible understanding of economics but I was intrigued by a discussion of Ben Friedman’s The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth.

    The logic of Marie Antoinette economics asserts that if consumption is linked to happiness, and we believe in the sustainability of a consumer culture as a stimulus for economic growth, then consumption is a moral good and we have never had it so good. However, Friedman is concerned that the benefits of economic growth are disproportionately concentrated in those social groups at or near the top. He argues persuasively that unequally distributed prosperity is not really prosperity…
    Friedman is apprehensive that the moral consequences of unequally distributed prosperity bear an uncanny resemblance to those of economic stagnation.

    In many ways such an argument is opposed to many of my beliefs yet there does seem to be an economic rationale to support it.

  2. #2 John Benbow
    August 20, 2008

    Mark Twain: “A man will do some things for love, and some for money; but he will do absolutely anything to be envied.”
    You’re right about a Rolex: Its owner must take it for granted; others covet it and envy him. But isn’t being envied reward enough? Maybe even a substitute for happiness?
    JB

  3. #3 tes
    August 20, 2008

    It is a (smallish, admittedly) tenet of my personal philosophy that one should occasionally find oneself broke, cold, hungry and badly shod somewhere outdoors late at night.
    It puts things into perspective.
    Basic and practical problems are often relatively easily solved, as opposed to many of our more modern types of misery.

  4. #4 amybuilds
    August 20, 2008

    I was disheartened to hear my eight year old say, “I’m bored, can we go out and get something?”

  5. #5 Alecco
    August 20, 2008

    (reposted)
    A great book to read on this subject is “To have or to be?” by Erich Fromm.

  6. #6 Gary Van Den Heuvel
    August 20, 2008

    In 1951, Marshall McLuhan, who coined “global village,” observed in his book, The Mechanical Bride:

    “Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind. To get inside in order to manipulate, exploit, control is the object now. And to generate heat not light is the intention. To keep everybody in the helpless state engendered by prolonged mental rutting is the effect of many ads and much entertainment alike.”

    And he said, that whole populations may “inevitably sink into a serfdom for which they have already been very well conditioned.”

  7. #7 Ron Huxley
    August 20, 2008

    I thought this a very well written post and loved the application of the brain to this moral/social issue. As a therapist, I often help people see how the process can be more important than the end result. I blogged on this post at http://www.ronhuxley.com

  8. #8 Luci
    August 20, 2008

    Here’s one counterbalance to the marketing scourge: make things yourself. Design control, self-chosen materials, clock-free process time with no overseer -and the result is something no one else has. If envy pops up, it may not be someone else’s desire to possess the not-sold-in-stores object, but a wish that they had made something of their own too.

    Envy of time and skill, and an admission that the process of making is its own reward: an advertiser’s nightmare, but maybe a nudge to take a break from consuming and being consumed.

    What’s dopamine up to when we can enjoy a job well done?

  9. #9 Alan
    August 20, 2008

    Allow me to add that there are times and places not to desire to be envied, not to draw attention to oneself through displays of ostentation. Envy is one thing; resentment quite another. A question for social science research is, given the reach of the internet and satellite TV, in what directions are the levels of happiness in other regions of the world moving? Another question is, at what point does advertizing become so pervasive that it becomes the neural equivalent of white noise? These are questions that the wise Adam Smith did not have occasion to ponder.

  10. #10 jb
    August 21, 2008

    “Our central nervous system conspires with advertisers to keep us eternally unsatisfied”….. only if we let it. One could even say that habituation is a good thing, a message from the universe that we’re on the wrong track, that is, if we think that a new watch, job, wife, ___fill-in-the-blank is going to secure our identity, solidify our sense of self and/or give us lasting happiness.
    If habituation of your neurons doesn’t get you, then the inherent impermanence of objects, situations and people will. It’s not that hooking up with _____ is wrong. It’s just that it’s not going to last. Another message from the universe. We are doomed to be eternally unsatisfied only if we don’t bother to take the time to look inside for what all humans already have. That’s the source of lasting happiness because it’s not something you have to get. It’s always there. You don’t have to earn it. But you have to ‘check it out’…it’s not a belief thing.
    And when you are tuned in then relationships with the rest of the world can be enjoyed for what they are, and having already secured your own happiness, then there’s nothng to do but help othes find theirs too.

  11. #11 David Baird
    August 22, 2008

    This seems to be another case where Buddhist philosophy is ahead of the field. It says that the main cause of suffering is trsna or craving. I like that term “hedonic treadmill”. Personally, it does seem that one of the best ways to have any peace is through realising this.
    It has always disturbed me when I hear economists push consumerism as a moral good because everyone I know who lives to consume is the most dissatisfied. On top of that, the fact that America produces 40% of the solid waste in the world shows it to be totally unsustainable.

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