Is It Possible To Be Mindfully Materialistic?
The Debrief: Can money actually ever, truly, buy you happiness?
Can you buy happiness? This is something I have genuinely wondered and attempted in my darker moments. I have bought throw away dresses and tops during bouts of misery and hoped that they would salve my soul. In the late capitalist, consumer centric and materialist society we inhabit the consensus (peddled by large corporations) is certainly that we should be trying to spend our way to happiness. I mean, hell, shopping is ‘empowering’ now isn’t it? If the adverts that follow me around in a fashion that would not look out of place in Minority Report, via cookies (which sound sweet but are anything but), are to be believed, I should feel ‘empowered’ when I buy shampoo, conditioner or a razor. Do I? Not really. Do I feel happy? No, I feel poorer but pleased that at some point in the near future I’ll take a long bath.
There are, however, some purchases that do make me feel good and here are some objects in my possession which pass the Marie Kondo test; they spark joy. There’s an old black and white photograph of the burned out old pier in Brighton shortly after the fire that gutted it. This was given to me by the person who took it and sits in a £4 Ikea frame which, genuinely, makes me happy when I look at it. It’s more than an object, it’s a symbol which represents a particular time and person. At the more luxe end of my possession spectrum is a first edition copy of Virginia Woolf’s The Years, with original artwork by her sister Vanessa Bell, which is worth upwards of £2,000. This was also a gift (from my grandfather) and I could never put a price on its true value.
The idea that you can’t buy happiness has been repeatedly revealed as a myth, although it persists an adage that we like to console ourselves with when we don’t have any money. When it comes to the symbiotic relationship between wealth and happiness the thinking amongst philosophers and social scientists alike is that there is a direct correlation between having money and being happy but this is not simply because money means you can buy lots of stuff, it’s because it affords stability and the more of it you have the better your quality of life. Indeed, the evidence is that materialism is unequivocally bad for us.
Critics of materialist neo liberal capitalism cite several studies to bolster this. One which found that people who are materialistic are more susceptible to mental health problems. Another, conducted in Iceland after the country’s economy collapsed, found that people who responded to the financial crisis by turning their attention to their family and community life reported higher levels of well-being than those who focused on materialism, the old spend money to get out of a crisis approach advocated by certain economists. Another bit of research, ironically put out by the Journal of Consumer Research, found a direct relationship between materialism and loneliness: being materialistic can make you feel socially isolated and socially isolated can make you materialistic. The study found that people who are cut off from others may attach more value to possessions.
I sometimes feel overwhelmed and bombarded by capitalism. Like many typical Internet users, I am seeing hundreds of adverts every hour, all of which are telling me on a subliminal level that there is an ideal and I can have it if I’m prepared to spend. It’s an extension of the Barbara Kruger style adverts formed the tongue-in-cheek sale campaigns for Selfridges years ago, an irony which can’t be lost on her. ‘I shop, therefore I am’ was her critical comment on capitalism but, at some point, we all actually bought into it.
I don’t want to relinquish all of my earthly material possessions and trade them in for spiritual fulfilment but I do want to stop myself buying things to solve problems; in fairness to a pair of £40 shoes from Zara, they can’t stop me feeling low long term. The question I’m searching for an answer to, I guess, is can you be mindfully materialistic? More broadly, I’m also wondering whether spiritual empowerment and consumerism are mutually exclusive concepts. I feel guilty when I shop sometimes because I feel like this is somehow a symbol of my superficiality.
Studies show that younger generations today are more likely to say they’re spiritual than religious than their elders and the rise of mysticore is well documented. Consumerist capitalism is undeniably on speed so is it any wonder that we’re once again delving into the mystical and spiritual? Ruby Warrington founded her website The Numinous in 2013 and quickly became a leading voice in what she describes as the ‘Now Age’ spirituality space. She has since authored a book, Material Girl, Mystical World, which explores the intersection of materialism, consumerism and mysticism in millennial life.
For Warrington, the Now Age is a reincarnation of the new age of spirituality which came about during the 1960s as the Age of Aquarius dawned. Technology has advanced greatly in the last 60 years and society has shifted too.
‘Part of my mission’ she says ‘has been to bridge the gap between the mystical and the material.’ In her view, there is ‘definitely a preconception, grounded in very real ideologies, that in order to embrace a more mystical or spiritual mindset we must renounce our attachment to material things.’ But she doesn’t subscribe to that, ‘I’m a human being’ she tells me ‘and I live on planet earth and the mere fact of having a physical body makes me a material being – I still have physical needs that must be met. So the idea that the only way to find yourself is going and meditating in an ashram for 6 months is actually a barrier to many people investigating this side of life.’
Does Warrington agree that we live in a world which increasingly tells us we are what we have in material terms? She agrees and tells me that before founding The Numinous she worked on fashion magazines for 15 years. She began questioning whether what she was doing had any meaning to her or the world at large she embraced what she now calls ‘a numinous mindset’.
Numinous is derived from Latin and, broadly, means something which has a strong spiritual quality. For Warrington this is a pick and mix of practices ranging from astrology to meditation and crystals.
‘What I believe’ she tells me ‘is that our capitalist culture and system places so much importance on the material that’s seeking to find any connection to spirituality or mysticism – I prefer the word the numinous because it encapsulates it all – is actually a very necessary part of finding a balance’. When I ask drill down to the core of her beliefs here she says ‘think of it as a counter balance to the extremely materialistic culture that we live in and when I say materialistic I mean a culture that’s extremely focused on the external and the attainment of things as a path to happiness and fulfilment. Some people might say we don’t need any of those things and that all of our happiness and fulfillment could be generated from within- but I believe finding a balance between the two worlds is the path to living a fully integrated life where we can still show up and engage with the material world and be passionate about our career, have interactions in our busy city lives but we can bring in a connection to something that’s larger than ourselves and brings more meaning, purpose and fulfilment’.
Ruby tells me that she has now also stopped drinking. She says that ‘alcohol culture is so prevalent and is one of the things that keeps us locked in unhealthy cycles’. I have to say I can relate here, my fast fashion habits and drinking are two things I have on a perpetual mental ‘Really Must Sort Out’ list. ‘I used to find myself walking into Zara on auto pilot’ Ruby says, ‘because I was so addicted to that instant gratification and would think “ooh I’ll just get a new top today”. Now I recognise that addiction and ask myself “do you really need a new top?” “Does the world need you to buy a new top?” “Does Zara really need to be producing quite so many tops?” No. Definitely not.’
Money can bring happiness if you spend and save it wisely. Stuff can bring you joy but, ultimately, is the key to placing less importance on material possessions and external attainment finding purpose and fulfilment?
Ruby says that she does not think there is anything wrong with ‘wanting to adorn ourselves and appreciate beautiful things, if anything, these are the things which enhance our human physical lives and bring pleasure and enjoyment but ‘she thinks far too much importance is placed on the attainment of material success often at the expense of our spiritual lives’.
Today, instant gratification is expected. We are followed around by adverts reminding us about things we might have looked at once online, subtly and consistently they whisper ‘you really want me, you need me, buy me, I’ll change your life’ and we know that with one click, or touch of our thumb to our iPhone screen, it could be yours, delivered to our door tomorrow. With so many distractions it’s easy to lose sight of what we really need and become fixated on what we want, or think we want.
The resurgence of mysticore, spirituality or whatever you want to call it at a time of such intense consumerism can be no coincidence. Ruby tells me she also now sleeps with a giant amethyst crystal next to her bed and I confide in her that I too, carry crystals with me. My great aunt used to keep them in her bra and I became interested in their power at a young age. Whether it’s meditation, crystals, yoga, astrology or numerology, or a composite mysticism comprised of all the above, whatever tools you use to develop your self-knowledge, self-awareness and to remind you of your commitment to yourself can only be positive. After all, logic says that £7 top or an extra glass of wine is only going to last for so long.
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