Do you ever get the sense that we live in a culture of gratification that says we should submit to our every whim, while at the same time demands we disavow our desires? On one hand, Nigella tells us that it’s fine to indulge in that extra bit of chocolate, but The Minimalists tell us that we can somehow be made pure through abstention?
And do you ever feel anxious that you may not be living a good life? Or a nice life?
It would be wrong to say that these desires are something that is new to humanity. We have always aspired to want something more – it’s what makes us human. And aspiring to live a good life – one that identified pleasure with tranquility and a reduction of desire – was the foundation of the movement founded by Epicurus (341 – 270 B.C.). Aspiration is mostly a good thing – it meant that we decided to pick ourselves up and move on from the savanna millions of years ago. And it means that we constantly seek to progress.
The binge/purge life is mostly a problem of contemporary affluence, along with easy access to products. Because of advances in manufacturing and transport, along with all the outcomes of globalisation, such as cheap labour, a lot of stuff is significantly less expensive now, than it was a generation ago.
That said, people with very few resources aren’t really able to decide whether they want to minimise. Indeed, to purge, you need to have consumed something, and people with little resources usually already live a relatively minimalist life.
So, to some degree, much of this binge/purge behaviour is an attempt to overcome the ennui of the affluent life.
It is probably right to say that the level of anxiety, the push and pull that many people feel right now in this era of mass consumption, media, marketing, and availability of products and services, is pretty intense. And, it isn’t any particular demographic element (e.g., age, gender) that predicts who will be susceptible. Often the best predictors of who will respond to the binge/purge roundabout are situational and psychological factors that predispose us to feel a sense of anxiety with our current life, which leads us to seek a ‘good’ life.
How we decide what constitutes a good life, though, is dependent on a range of factors.
One of those factors is that we respond to extremes, rather than the ordinary. Much of our life is pretty ordinary, so we notice when people are living lives different to ours. For the most part, we respond to messaging from our trusted sources; family and friends first (with the advent of social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, and even Snapchat, we are becoming exposed to all sorts of aspirational lives), then trusted media (we still like to go to mainstream sources for support, but from a psychological perspective we will draw on any source that confirms our current beliefs and values), then marketing campaigns. And a low income doesn’t necessarily rule out aspiration. In my research, we have found that people who have very little resources, as well as those who have significant resources, still desire to live something akin to a good life.
Another important factor is that we are living in an era of responsibilisation; the belief that we are in charge of our destiny. Therefore, the holistic and multi-dimensional nature of the internal and external factors that influence decision-making, including psychological processes and biases, along with social norms and conditioning, is reduced to a single asinine argument – “it’s your fault, so stop whingeing and fix it.” Crucially, when people’s lives are not enjoyable, and they are not constantly satisfied, they are found to be more likely to take responsibility, experience guilt for the flawed lives, and feel obliged to engage in recovery measures.
We have absorbed a message that if something is going wrong in our lives, one way of resolving it is through consumption. Terms like “retail therapy”, while often said in humour, reinforce the norm that buying is the only way to overcome pain, anxiety or boredom.
To some degree, even the capitalist project is predicated on an ideology of dissatisfaction with our current state. So, most of us are constantly on the lookout for ways to achieve a higher state, and a better life through one of the few outlets that we feel we can control – what we buy. Marketers refer to this as the “ratchet” effect – people are never totally satisfied, so they will always be wanting something more.
Clever businesses respond to all of these predispositions to develop tactics that nudge us towards consumption, while giving us permission not to think, by surrounding us with stimuli designed to overwhelm our cognitive processing.
So, what can you do to reduce your anxiety?
One thing is to surround yourself with people who think the way you want to think. It’s a bit like a support group. If your entire social group is people who are constantly bingeing and purging, then it’s likely you will do the same.
Something else to do would be to slow down, when it comes to decision-making. If you do want to buy something, that’s fine, but do it outside the heat of the sales process. After removing yourself from the sales process, ask yourself three simple questions, “What was my life like before I decided to buy this?”, “If I do buy this, how will it make my life better?”, and “Will there be other opportunities to buy this in the future?” These questions are designed to get you to meditate on the process of consumption.
I’m not saying that you won’t end up buying or consuming whatever it is (I still struggle with these questions when it comes to a good burger), but don’t be too hard on yourself. You are still allowed treat yourself. You just don’t have to do it all the time.
Listen to my interview on Radio National (Australia) about this very topic