Some people think there's a subtle benefit to consumerism's ability to stimulate the economy. I feel like that's overstated, for a number of minor reasons*, and think that's a pretty harmful meme. But I heard a comment the other day that's got me thinking.
It was about how, in the process of hiring for a job a business owner's never hired for before, they had to learn a lot about what they wanted. It seems obvious once you say it – you have to listen to the pitch from a lot of very sophisticated people to know what you should care about, unless you're just hiring someone to execute your already-done SOP.
This was maybe the first time I understood consumerism.
Of course you ought to go shopping in a very general sense. If you don't know what you want, you should try out a bunch of things, and have knowledgeable people help you find the thing that's the best fit.
And of course "retail therapy" is a thing! The process I just described involves someone really listening to you, and making sure to meet your needs! What else could be more important to our mental health?
Is this the most mentally healthy way to feel listened to, and like your needs are being met? Probably not – but there's a fair case to be made that it's one of the most efficient. I'd love to take care of someone, do everything I can for them – I've dreamed of being married since I was a kid. But I'm very much a package deal. I'll do my best to be good at enjoying the things you wish to share, giving you massages, small gifts, and most important to any intimate relationship, a good roommate. But I just don't offer the specialization a professional can offer, and although part of me thinks it's best to check with your partner first, it's completely reasonable to just go find a professional massage therapist. And while it shouldn't be your first port of call, if you need someone to just make you feel listened to, who doesn't remember the exquisite rush of having the person at Chipotle follow your instructions and make something better than you could yourself?
Sure, most of us have burned out on such simple pleasures. But I remember my first experiences with it quite well. It was miraculous.
Perhaps the truest state of zen is to realize that, it's okay to have needs and see them met, and there's no moral valence to having psychological needs met by the process of finding something perfect to buy for yourself. That's certainly how I feel, but then again, demonstrably, I seem okay with just not buying things and feeling sad (but everyone feels sad sometimes – my lack of even trying consumerism might be only a lack of curiosity), so what do I know about how to live a life?
* Notably, you'd anticipate that people would spend that money on something, even if advertisements don't have any impact – many millionaires are too busy to see ads and still manage to spend essentially all of their money. But the main reason is that, if people didn't spend all their money, more money would be saved and savings stimulate investment. I have no reason to think America's low savings rates are optimal – more investment in business would likely increase new firm formation and lead to even greater growth.