A recent national survey found that 87% of Americans, across the political spectrum, agree with the statement, “Our country would be better off if we consumed less.” We also know that beyond a certain point, higher income (and the higher consumption levels it makes possible) does not bring happiness. A study by Princeton researchers found that happiness increases as annual income rises but only until $75,000. The researchers concluded “high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness” and low income “is associated both with low life evaluation and low emotional well-being.”
While meeting basic needs is a condition of well-being, other lifestyle components are just as important, including having personal freedom, achieving one’s potential, having enough free time and being in harmony with nature.
These findings suggest a value set that is diverging from the consumer culture that exists today, so why are we so entrenched as consumers? The dominance of consumerism is a relatively recent development, but one that has had a profound impact on popular culture and our sense of personal identity and well-being.
But as Halina Brown points out, we don’t have to be stuck in a consumer culture:
“Another striking thing about this transformation is that it was a deliberate construct, not some historical inevitability. It was shaped by coordinated efforts of government (infrastructure, tax laws, other policies), organized labor (which single-mindedly pushed for higher wages, not, for example, for longer vacations) and the business community. If this is a construct, and if such a massive cultural transformation could happen so fast, then we should consider that a change beyond the consumerist lifestyle model and values is also possible and, in fact, achievable.”
The attitudes and behavior of the current Millennial generation suggest a real shift away from consumerism toward a different view of prosperity and well-being. This group has grown up during a period of recession, shrinking job prospects, climate change and other pressures. At the same time, they are supporting the rise of collaborative and reciprocal lifestyles, eschewing suburban, material-intensive living for more urban settings with shared public resources and opportunities for living within a smaller footprint. Halina Brown sees these shifts as,
...strengthening the sense of community and social trust, all essential for the sense of well-being. And the sheer size of this demographic group, and their social media-based interconnectedness, increases the probability that the incremental individual lifestyle changes may evolve into a shared collective consciousness and an emergence of a new framing of well-being, one that is radically different from that of the post-war generations.
A deep cultural shift of this nature will be necessary to bring about more sustainable consumption. These trends provide cities with an opportunity to leverage this new framing of well-being for change on a broader scale.