Redefining prosperity

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.

Does more stuff make us happier? Maybe, to a point, but research suggests that material wealth has its limits. A survey [1] conducted for the Center for a New American Dream in 2014 confirmed that the key to our happiness lies beyond simple materialism. While meeting basic needs is essential, 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. Achieving affluence? Not so much.

What Americans think of the American dream results

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.

Halina Brown discusses how America became a consumer society where mass acquisition and use of material goods is the dominant lifestyle, the centerpiece of social practices, leisure time and cultural rituals. How can we reduce the ecological impact of these lifestyles while fostering economic well-being? (16m40s)

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.

  1. New American Dream Poll. Center for a New American Dream, 2014.