The Malta Independent 19 May 2022, Thursday

The cost of over-consumption on our well-being

Friday, 13 May 2022, 13:46 Last update: about 6 days ago

Psychotherapist Danjela Falzon works with clients suffering from anxiety and depression, relationship issues, sexuality, personality disorders, self-esteem issues and those wishing to work on self-development. She forms part of the team at TherapyWorks Clinic. For more information visit https://www.therapyworks.com.mt/

In recent years, I've noticed an increasing number of clients entering therapy due to feelings of anxiety, stress, burnout and general life dissatisfaction. These are people who, on the surface, have everything they need - a home, car, stable job and so on. However, they report having too much work to do in a standard day, feel pressured to perform, often work more than 40 hours per week, feel unable to switch off and never have enough time for themselves, family or friends.

For most of us, this chaotic lifestyle seems to have crept up on us, without us even realising. You could say that much of our behaviour and beliefs were obtained from conditioning or what was instilled in us as young children. For instance, as I was growing up, I was aware that when I became an adult, I'd work full-time and that included a 40-hour week. I never questioned it. It was just what everyone else was doing. 

Interestingly, the 40-hour week was established in the early 1900s at a time when most work was industrial, meaning people worked in factories or other manufacturing plants. At that time, working from home didn't exist since all work could only be carried out on the workplace. Furthermore, two-income households were rare, meaning that while one adult worked, the other was at home to take care of the children and perform household duties. Despite today's circumstances differing drastically from the early 1900s, not only has the 40-hour week persisted, but many people are expected to work more than 40 hours. This creates stress and anxiety and puts a significant strain on relationships.

You may be wondering, what is it that causes us to consume too much? I don't think I'd be too harsh in claiming that we live in a society which is overly concerned with money and materialism. Therefore, particularly for young people who may not have parents who can afford to provide them with what their peers have, this can lead to feelings of shame or the fear of not being accepted. Such children may then, as they grow up, equate the acquisition of material possessions with fitting in, being accepted and avoiding re-experiencing shame related to not "having enough".

In a similar vein, a great number of people who may not even have had such experiences as those described above, may be using spending as a means of addressing feelings of vulnerability or inner discomfort. For instance, someone sitting at home feeling lonely or sad may see an advertisement depicting friends gathered together. They may then choose to buy the product being advertised, giving them a temporary distraction from their pain or discomfort and a false hope that buying the product will meet their need for human contact and belonging.

You could say, therefore, that consumerism capitalises on our insecurities, particularly in light of an environment in which anything we experience or purchase can be flaunted on social media. Consumer goods, therefore, have become status symbols or outer displays of "success" and achievement, creating a culture of envy, competition and greed. Consumerism, when taken to the extreme, promotes consuming as a path to self and social improvement, forgetting, of course, that spending on material goods can only result in improvement on a very superficial level. Psychological, emotional and spiritual improvement is neglected which, ironically, are the domains which could actually alleviate our internal discomfort.

According to the American Psychological Society, while there has been a substantial increase in consumption and overall material wealth since the 1950s, psychological and emotional well-being have decreased (Twenge, 2000). An average to higher income can, of course, make life more comfortable, allowing you to afford medical care, education, travel and so on. However, as with most things in life, a lack of balance or an over-emphasis on material consumption can come at a cost to relationships, peace of mind and well-being. While the link between money, possessions and psychological well-being is complex, a vast range of research has found a connection between materialistic values and depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and life dissatisfaction (Wasser 2011; Smith 2011; Christopher et al 2009). This may be due to the decreased ability to manage the demands of work, leisure and family time, and the neglect of interpersonal relationships and personal pursuits (hobbies, exercise, time to unwind) due to working many hours (Giacalore et al 2010; Karabati et al 2010).

As our lifestyle becomes more immersed in this system of consumption, we often slip into a cycle of wanting more things, feeling dissatisfied with what we have and comparing ourselves to others. What we're not realising, however, is that what we consume costs a lot more than just the money we hand over when making a purchase. Anything we buy equates to time earning such money, thus taking away from the time which we could otherwise use for personal pursuits, to spend with our family or friends or to nurture ourselves spiritually and emotionally.

I invite you to reflect on your own choices and behaviour and decide if there's anything you'd change, if you could. Awareness and knowledge are by no means enough. However, they're the first step in making positive and meaningful lifestyle changes for your benefit and that of the people in your life who count.


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