Does our money-crazy world really make us happy?

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Does our money-crazy world really make us happy?

By Amit Singh


Trying to buy the capitalist dream will not make us happy. Trevor under a Creative Commons Licence

When we are questioning capitalism, we often look at poverty, justice, and fairness. We look at how business interests control the governments of Western states. But we don’t often look at what effect capitalism has on our well-being and happiness.

It’s a real criticism of capitalism’s ‘success’ that we are no closer to an ideal, perfect society. In fact, capitalism is moving us away from it.

Life under capitalism is a long way from the pictures we see in advertising which are trying to sell consumer goods.

This is how capitalism sees happiness: we need to be ‘young’ and ‘beautiful’ - in the Western idea – so, very white. We should be very slim, have a slim and beautiful partner on our arm, and enjoy partying all night. We should have lots of sex, and we should have a lot of consumer goods. If we can do this, then we are ‘rich’.

But this lifestyle leaves many of us feeling unhappy. People can work hard but they will not earn as much money as the rich or have enough money to buy enough consumer products to feel happy. There is no happiness in a world where there is too much of everything.

What we have is not what we see on TV. Real life in a white, capitalist society has high levels of obesity, alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett write in their important book The Spirit Level, that this is what capitalism and inequality are doing. One of their reasons for this unhappiness is that we ‘see outward wealth as the same as inner worth’. And so if we aren’t living the glamour lifestyle, we feel unworthy.

People laugh at people who are fat - especially women. But our society has made us consume and buy too much. Many people abuse drink and drugs because they need a release from all of this. If people have the huge wealth to live the capitalist dream, most are working longer hours for it and have less and less time to enjoy their wealth. This is one of capitalism’s great problems.

What is the cost of working for wealth? We are never satisfied and we never feel we are working hard enough, which many find stressful. It also makes it difficult for the unemployed to feel self-worth, as we see worth as wealth. People think less of those with fewer consumer goods and at the same time try to have everything their neighbours have.

There is a bigger problem. When we try to have everything our neighbours have, we really want to be better than them. Capitalism has made a terrible competition which sees the ‘individual’ as very important. This is in many ways a Western idea.

In many pre-colonial societies outside of the West, the idea of the individual and personal beauty were unknown. Frantz Fanon describes these ideas as Mediterranean values. In South Africa, for example, there is the idea of Ubuntu, which his more about the community. Desmond Tutu describes it as speaking ‘particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. We are all connected. You can’t be human all by yourself.’ The difference between this way of life and modern capitalism is very clear.

With the individual in the centre of the universe, there is only a small sense of a community. People see those outside their family as competitors in the race for happiness. We are lonely individuals in a war with everyone around us. It is no surprise, then, that we’re not as happy as we say we are on Instagram or Facebook.

We do not listen to our natural instincts to love and trust. The Spirit Level says that in most capitalist, Western societies, distrust is very high. We are making ourselves and others separate to live the consumer dream.

We may have a lot of sex and a lot of holidays and buy a lot of goods but we may not be happy. The problem is that capitalism sells us happiness as something that we can buy. We cannot buy it. We look for love through capitalism and not through what is around us. We try to make ourselves real with designer clothes or parties.

People talk a lot about changing society through revolution. Maybe the starting point is a revolution in ourselves, where we try to leave behind our individual self and love the world around us, not the consumer goods we can buy.

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