Anti-consumerism is less about money, more about individuality

If we could buy our way into a happy life, we’d all be in rainbow land by now. 

The average external environment is getting constantly better but the human mind stays more or less the same. So I could experience more taste in a Doritos chip today than a medieval king could in their entire life but we can both suffer from similar internal problems. 

Similarly, if I now buy a new kitchen table, I’d be a bit happier for a while, but then my happiness level would fall back to where I am right now. This is the concept of hedonic adaptation. (But if I build a kitchen table though, the happiness might be here to stay...)

Surely, common causes of unhappiness can be avoided with money - if it’s a money problem, money solves it. But most problems aren’t of that kind, so money can’t solve them.

For example, desire (wanting more) is something you can’t solve externally. Once you get what you want, you’ll want something new next. We think the problem is external - that we don’t have what we want - when the problem is internal - the desire itself.

We tend to think some people are anti-consumerist because they want to save money, but I’ll show that it’ll help you become happy and live the life you want, independent of society’s influences. Anti-consumerism helps you shift your focus from the external to the internal. Finally, I’ll lay out action steps on how to buy and consume less.

Why anti-consumerism isn’t about money

Anti-consumerism is a contrarian way of thinking that opposes the mindless consumption of things. While buying fewer things is a big part of this ideology, even more important is the defining of your own core values and life goals, instead of receiving them from our consumerist society.

So yeah, you can make savings. But like most personal finance gurus would tell you, the best thing to do to your finances isn’t to give up bagels to save $20 a month but to increase your income. There’s no upper limit to how much you can earn but there’s a limit to how much you can reduce your expenses.

And yes, you’ll also save

  • Time (all your stuff used to be money, and that money used to be time. Plus, all the time spent on researching products, cleaning, maintaining, moving around…)
  • Mental resources (if it’s expensive, you worry more about it getting dirty or broken or stolen)

But those aren’t the main point either.

The less you consume, the happier you are

Imagine a seemingly normal person:

  • When they want to be entertained or avoid boredom, they consume Netflix
  • When they are sad or stressed, they “deserve” to treat themselves
  • When they want to celebrate, they buy a cake or champagne
  • When they want to show someone they care about them, they buy them an expensive gift

In a hyper-consumerist society, every part of our lives is ruled by consumption.

And this is, of course, by design. There’s the obvious case to say about ads, but beyond that, few notice how deep-rooted consumerism is in our lives. 

  • When your partner is mad, are you inclined to resolve the situation with flowers and chocolates or through healthy discussion?
  • When we’re celebrating a birthday or Valentine’s, are we celebrating the event and our time together, or are we celebrating the decorations and gifts and dresses associated with the event? If you don’t spend money, are you even celebrating?
  • If I asked you to picture your “ideal lifestyle”, are you thinking of big houses, expensive clothes and yachts? Is your life goal to become a bigger consumer?

We believe that by buying more, we’d be happier. But it’s the opposite: if we rely on buying to feel happy, our lives are miserable. We’d always be searching for the next thing to satisfy our addiction.

Things can give us a fleeting sense of happiness, but it never lasts. We overestimate how happy a new thing would make us. At the store, we’re convinced this new watch or shirt or bag will improve our lives so much… but think of a recent purchase you made: You’re not a fundamentally happier person now, are you? We take the item for granted and start searching for the next thing.

Whatever you’re desiring - and making your current situation seem bad in comparison - always seems better when you don’t have it.

Anti-consumerism is a change to your life philosophy. One of appreciating the things money can’t buy, and one where we don’t outsource our happiness to material.

Think of what makes us happy. Good relationships, doing what you love, being healthy… Someone who doesn’t believe consuming makes them happy prioritizes that which does make them happy. Or at least their value system is more shaped by themselves rather than advertisers. 

Those who don’t believe external stuff can give them long-lasting happiness will look for happiness within. They’ll take ownership of it. They understand happiness can’t be handed to them but that they’ll need to work for it.

So if you don’t consume anything next week, will you be happier? Probably not. Anti-consumerism isn’t just about reducing your consumption; it's an ideology. But if you prioritized things money can’t buy and understood happiness is an inside job… would you become happier? Absolutely.

The less you consume, the more you’re in control of your life

Advertisers want you to buy their stuff. The news and social media want you to consume their stuff. Your neighbors and colleagues judge you based on your clothes and your car. Your mom will be devastated if you don’t have diamonds in your wedding dress. Society expects you to consume.

If you can resist that, you’re living how you want, not how they’d like you to live. You’re more in control.

How in control are you of your own life if seeing the right ad makes you buy a product you wouldn’t otherwise buy? If seeing your neighbor’s new car makes you want to buy a new car as well? If you’re convinced your life goal is to become a millionaire and live in a mansion?

Anti-consumerism is less about money, more about individuality. It’s not a matter of saving money but of saving yourself from outside influences. It’s a matter of ignoring the external screams of what you should do and be, so that you can focus on what you think internally. 

In a consumerist society, if you’re buying a lot, you’re not in control; if you want to be in control, you’ll need to become an anti-consumerist.

How to buy and consume less

1. Stop seeing ads

  • Use an ad blocker (I use uBlock Origin, it blocks ads on most websites)
  • For the remaining online ads you see, you can turn ad personalization off and individually block or hide the ads until what you see is just funny rather than tempting
  • Consume fewer things where you can’t block ads. For example, TV and radio. When you go out, try to spend more time in nature vs city centers that are littered with ads
  • Easier goal: on a normal day, see zero ads that you could avoid with the above actions
  • Harder goal: on a normal day, see zero ads

2. Stop seeing marketing communications

Once we’re done with ads, it’s time for other forms of marketing communications.

  • Unsubscribe from brand emails (I just “report spam & unsubscribe” if it’s too hard otherwise)
  • Don’t follow brands or influencers who promote products often, or at least be very selective. Unfollow if they sell you a consumerist lifestyle (cars, nice houses, waterfall after waterfall).
  • Be cautious of news that promote new products or companies

3. Reduce external stimuli (or at least be mindful of how it affects you)

So far, we’ve reduced stimuli coming from brands. Now, let’s limit stimuli that may not come from brands but regardless encourage consumerism.

  • Let go of anything that tells you what you “should” be or do. For example, news like “How to make your hair shinier” or “The hottest trends of this summer” => They create a problem and sell you the solution.
  • Most TV shows and movies influence your idea of success. James Bond movies let you think that to live well, you need a private bar and fancy suits. Some shows portray partying and festivals as happiness. Rarely does an ordinary but happy life make good TV. So we are lowkey manipulated into believing consumerism leads to a good life, not only from advertisers, but nearly all media.
  • So consume less of everything, reflect more. Understand how the external influences change you. Be internal-oriented rather than external-driven. 

4. Wait, reuse, fix, borrow, buy used

But let’s say you feel the need to buy something, and you’re convinced it’s you speaking, not society speaking through you.

  • Could you wait (helps you avoid impulse purchases), reuse what you have (even if worn-out or imperfect), fix it, borrow (eg stuff we use once a year, like a hammer) or buy used? You probably could.

5. When buying something, consider if you want to pay for the brand’s ads

Okay okay, we do need to buy stuff. Here’s what to consider:

If it has a strong brand, the price may factor in their ads spend. The purpose of a brand is to de-commoditize the product, enabling higher prices. We naturally want to go for the familiar product (in other words, the product we’ve seen advertised most), so we are willing to pay a little extra. Try to avoid this tendency. Especially in low-stakes purchases like a can of beans. If the off-brand is bad, just buy the name brand next time.

While you’ll save money, the valuable lesson you’ll learn is that most of the time, expensive doesn’t equal better. Popular doesn’t equal better. Make conscious decisions, don’t just follow what the ads tell you. Slowly train your brain to think for itself.

6. Get a hobby

If you have issues with scrolling Instagram, and you delete the app, you won't suddenly become ultra productive. You'll find a new way to waste your time.

The same is true with consuming. You need to replace the dopamine of products and newness and your Amazon delivery guy’s familiar knocking with something else. Otherwise, you may feel empty and go back to consuming.

So get a hobby. Preferably something where

  1. You’re constantly improving (to get that sweet dopamine you’re craving). Self-mastery and boundary-breaking. 
  2. You’re distanced from consumerism. Something where you can’t pay-to-win. You really do need to improve rather than spend more than others.

If you feel more pleasure through your hobby than through consumption, your brain will prioritize accordingly. If you’re unsure what that hobby could be, check my post on discovering your meaning.

7. Try an anti-consumerism challenge

  • Buy nothing -week (except food, medicine, true essentials). Then buy nothing -month and -year…
  • Fix something that’s broken. A 5-minute tutorial is all it takes. 
  • Borrow, don’t buy it. Next time you’re thinking of buying something not-so-ordinary, consider whether you could borrow or rent it. You don’t need to own everything.
  • Sell or donate your stuff. What’s something you haven’t touched in months or years? Would getting rid of this simplify your life? 

8. Internalize the ideology

  • Consuming will not make you happy.
  • Your life goal is not to become a bigger consumer.
  • Nothing you buy will make you permanently happy. Happiness is an inside job, it can’t be bought and no one can give it to you.
  • The less you value things that can be bought, the more you’ll value things that can’t.
  • To be in control of your own life, you need to ignore external influences. Most external influences are there to make you consume.

Initially, not consuming feels bad. Later, it feels good - you’ll be proud of it.

This is a hard journey and society will always try to convince you you’re wrong. Your happiness and individuality are simply far too unprofitable for the influential actors in our environment. 

Good luck.

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