What was the last thing you did that really, truly mattered? What was the last conversation you had about something more meaningful than a project at work, plans for the weekend, a novel you read or film you watched? We work a lot, play a little, and marvel at how quickly time passes. What we don't do is spend much time pondering why we're doing the things we do or whether there might be a better way to live. For a long while, this surface-level existence was enough; but now our priorities are changing. The Great Recession has yielded much hardship, but we also must credit it for yanking us out of our ruts and routines and making us reconsider what is really important - and how satisfying our lives truly have been.
At the tail end of 2009, Euro RSCG Worldwide undertook a seven-market study to better understand an emerging shift toward what we refer to as mindful consumption. Whereas in recent decades our spending had been quick and unthinking (I see, therefore I buy), now it is becoming more conscious and considered. Our examination of these patterns forms the basis of our new book, Consumed: Rethinking Business in the Era of Mindful Spending. What we discovered in our research is that this change in consumption reflects far more than a desire for savings or anxiety over an uncertain future; people are experiencing a deep-seated discontent and desire for change. Among the 1,500 Americans we surveyed, for example, two-thirds said society is moving in the wrong direction, while eight in ten complained that people have become too shallow, focusing too much on things that don't really matter. Three-quarters worry that people have grown intellectually lazy. More surprising, two-thirds actually see an upside to the recession, saying it has served to remind people of what is really important in life. What the survey respondents were expressing is unhappiness with life as we have come to know it and a hunger for more. Not more "stuff," but more substance and meaning. More purpose and fulfillment. A more satisfying way of living.
Why the sudden urge for more? While the economic skies were bright, most of us were kept busy by our day-to-day affairs as consumers and the eternal quest to accumulate. Begun in earnest in the years following World War II (an automatic washer! a percolating coffeepot!), our hyperconsumerist tendencies accelerated in the 1970s and 80s, when we suddenly realized just how many things we couldn't bear to live without, whether it be the fad of the day (Pet Rock, anyone?) or the latest in electronics. As Mad Magazine astutely noted years ago: "The only reason a great many American families don't own an elephant is that they have never been offered an elephant for a dollar down and easy weekly payments."
The problem with our obsessive consumption--even overlooking such pesky considerations as the plundering of our natural resources--is that it managed, in the last half century, to become our culture. In school, we sought to learn more so we could earn more so we could yearn less and own more. And that worked out quite well for lots of people (particularly those in the upper income brackets), until that great killjoy of a downturn sucked all the fun out of Sub-Zero fridges and 60-inch plasma TVs. Even people who managed to hold onto their jobs saw their savings plummet and confidence shaken. We started to become more conscious of what we bought--and how much we owed. More important, we started to think more about why we bought and whether all this heretofore mindless accumulation had really gotten us anywhere. Had our profligate spending made us happier? More satisfied? Many of us came to the conclusion that the answer was No. More than a third of the Americans in our survey said they feel as though they actually have been wasting their lives, and around half said they are actively trying to figure out what makes them happy. Six in ten worry that people have become too disconnected from the natural world, and nearly eight in ten think most people would be better off if they lived more simply. It turns out that while we did indeed own more, we actually had less. Less purpose. Less time for personal relationships. Less joy. But plenty of stress, anxiety, debt, and irritating clutter.