Love and money compete in the battle to fulfill women.
Last week I found myself at the house of a friend in her early forties whose boyfriend had just dropped the bomb that he was in love with someone else. When I entered her apartment, I thought Denise was trying to strangle herself with electrical cords. She was smoking a Marlboro and sobbing into the headsets of both her cell phone and her Blackberry, mascara running down her cheeks and staining her satin pillowcase. Those sheets were Armani; this had to be bad.
Denise is a woman who appears to have it all -- a successful jewelry business (which comes with a four-thousand-dollar-diamond-studded Rolex), the perfect body (okay, so the boobs and tanorexia are fake) and connections to everyone who's anyone from here to Milan. But as she guzzled the bottle of Prosecco I'd brought, she confessed that years ago she’d made a terrible life mistake. For too long she'd thought being your best self meant having the best of everything, and she realized too late in her life that it's really relationships and family that bring happiness. Now how would she recover from this mess in time to find someone new and have babies?
I untangled my friend from the cords and assured her the mascara on the shoulder of my favorite Old Navy t-shirt was nothing. Then I headed home to investigate whether it's love or money that brings permanent and unshakable happiness.
It's no coincidence that American adults in our 20s and 30s, who've recently been labeled Generation Me, were the first cohort to be targeted as child consumers back in the 1970s and 80s. Saturday morning cartoons were punctuated with commercials of shiny happy kids playing blissfully around the latest talking board game. As we aged, the media became experts at creating marketing campaigns and cultural phenomena that kept us salivating for more. (Fellow New Kids on the Block fans, please rise.) If I had the new tape, I needed the figurines. I already owned the t-shirt, so when was the tour coming to town so I could wear it? (My own father, in fact, drove two hours the week before my 10th birthday so I could see the New Kids live. It was less that I was spoiled and more that all my internal organs would have shriveled and disintegrated if I'd missed seeing Jordan Knight live on that fateful evening in December 1989. When we ran into them having dinner at Denny's after the concert, I was too shy to even utter an awkward, brace-faced hi.)
A famous song from the 1970s suggests you can't always get what you want. Really? Because our generation does. My recent article, Why Am I Still Single?, discusses how consumer culture has made us narcissistic relationship partners, telling us that we should never have to compromise. Those jeans shrunk when you washed them? Sister, go get your money back! That friend chews kinda funny when you go out to dinner? Divert her calls! You're not happy with that job? Change careers! Don't let life's little inconveniences make you suffer -- kick those speed bumps to the curb and get to your happy place!
But if we keep thinking like this, we'll alienate ourselves completely— and that's just what society wants. Here's the truth: consumer culture targets the single person, convincing us that there is no one in the world like us. The brand of moisturizer my grandma used to wear recently staged a comeback, targeting my demographic with a magazine ad that said, "It's all about YOU: log onto our website and tell us about your skin. We talk to you about what's best for it. It's that simple." On the next page, a computer ad featured a trendy, exotic-looking guy with hot new gadgets floating around his head, as if he were contemplating which one he wanted to play with first. Marketers want you to know that to them, YOU are unique. YOU are the master of your universe. YOU are part of the savviest generation of consumers in the most developed nation in history. Now click here to buy our product to stay even more in control of your life and conquer anything that's a threat to your own personal satisfaction.
Consumer culture wants us to stay solo and set in our ways because the longer we remain that way, the more frustrated we grow. The more frustrated we grow, the more we yearn. The more we yearn, the more we want; and the more we want, the more we buy. A famous clothing designer recently told a friend in private, "I don't sell clothes, I sell emotions." As lone consumers, we seek objects that give us the identity we want to portray to the outside: a flirty blouse, a luxury car, fruit juice with antioxidants in that really cute bottle, the new MP3 player smaller than a nostril that also donates money to charity with every download. Look how feminine, expensive, healthy, sleek, and socially concerned I am! Now let's just see what's happening on Bluefly today...
Alessandro Spaggiari is the CEO and president of Spal, Inc., an international company manufacturing parts for sports cars, cell phones, and surgical devices. He says for companies to fare successfully in the ever-evolving worlds of technology and capitalism, they must know the secrets to keeping consumers coming back for more. "On average, a single person spends more on consumer goods than a couple spends, combined," he says. "Marketers are happy to see young people — the highest-spending demographic of all— staying single right now." If you're alone, chances are good you'll spend your free time spending — on a ticket to see a film, out for drinks with friends, on a new self-help book, a guitar to practice during quiet nights at home, a new car even if the old one is fine. It's as though we're trying to fill ourselves up with stuff. But those in solid relationships are more likely to keep the funds closer to home, staying in together for a chat and a glass of wine or watching TV instead.
A recent study by psychologists Edward Diener, Ph.D., and David Meyer, Ph.D. led to the conclusion that while people living in wealthy nations are happier than those who live in poorer ones, once an individual has reached an income level that covers essential needs and basic comforts, extremely higher levels of wealth don't significantly impact a person's happiness. Remember late-night ice cream on the fire escape of your first apartment out of college? The first time you paid off a credit card? Chances are you were more fulfilled then than you are a year into a high-paying job. By the way, where's that promotion? How about that tax return I was counting on for a Caribbean vacation? And will my friends think I'm cheap if I buy from the Bed Bath & Beyond wedding registry, or do I have to hit up Bloomingdale's?
My friends: more money, more problems.
And it gets worse. Another study by psychologist Tim Kasser, Ph.D. went even further, finding that people who place great importance on money, image, and status actually report lower well-being than those aiming for simpler goals. The material-oriented participants exhibited more anxiety and depression and reported fewer pleasant feelings and positive relationships than their more down-to-earth counterparts. It's an easy, no-brainer cycle to keep grabbing and spending and wanting more, but it may be the opportunity to love others that truly provides fulfillment and a chance to learn something new about ourselves, the world, and life in general.
So maybe we can always get what we want -- but do we really want to? And if what we want is ultimately pure, glowing happiness... today, learn from Denise. Take a break from spending —even a penny— for two days to a week. You"ll feel better about yourself, your capacity for contentment, and what the world needs most from you.