Why does it feel like I’m only happy when I’m consuming?



We’re in the midst of a pandemic and I can’t stop buying stuff.

A frequent conundrum for the modern-day semi-adult is whether to spend or save. Dinners out (not for you, Melbourne), dalliances and donning the latest garments off the racks of Instagram’s elite allows us to justify haemorrhaging the cash we’re trying to stash away. But what’s the real cost?

I am stubbornly savings-averse. I love the dopamine rush of a purchase and the tactile indulgence of simply cradling something coveted and new. A doorstep delivery in isolation acts as a touchpoint through which discussion can be had and personal style can be articulated virtually amongst friends, colleagues and social media’s onlookers. In the throes of lockdown 2.0, consumption is the gateway through which I can bring something from the outside world in, just to marvel at for a moment.  

Tragically, I know the more I buy, the more validated I feel. This is by no means limited to sartorial splurging. It extends far beyond the realm of fashion. I am instantly gratified by artisan-crafted, sultana-studded croissants and impeccably brewed large soy lattes. I romanticise things like going physically into bookstores and feeling a sense of community, continuity and society, a feeling that crescendoes with a purchase before I leave. I enjoy the prospect of any outing or online acquisition that brings me instantaneous felicity. 

Some mornings, I wake up with the desire to purchase more books to further my vocabulary and worldliness. This will allow me to write with conviction and insight. On other days, if some neon orange mules could elevate my monochromatic wardrobe in the event of an important work meeting or date in the (very) distant future, I will oblige by ordering them online.

When they arrive at my door, I experience a momentary high, maybe some showy externalisation of my new arrivals via social media and then the inevitable consideration of what to consume next. It swiftly seems that crushingly, they do not fit, nor do they support my fragile ankles or walking more than five metres. The dream is dismantled, and I am onto the next purchase that may promote a better-dressed and better-in-every-way future-self. It’s all very insatiable, and thus I won’t be affording a house deposit any time this century.

This year, a large portion of us have been shopping online more than ever before. When we’re bored and deflated, it is sometimes the only form of palpable reprieve available. It feels as if we are actively ‘improving’ our lives through the conduit of currency. I purchased an $82 Anamorphine candle from Overose last week. Upon unearthing it from a boujee outer shell and surrendering to the all-sensory massage of its Jardin de Tuileries inspired fragrance, I felt significantly better about my life.

I was enveloped in its richness. It now holds prime real estate on my nightstand and will most likely never be struck with a match because I refuse to see its demise. I may entertain the idea of gutting its waxy remnants and immortalising that weighty, rose-hued carcass into a vessel to display other items of beauty ephemera in a different context. Yes, I say soothingly to myself, that would look nice in a bathroom mirror selfie. That would perpetuate the narrative I am forging for myself.

I struggle to evade my unrelenting desire for ‘more’. Nothing is ever enough. I’m severely attention-deficit and obnoxiously ambitious, so this seems to dangerously dovetail into my spending habits. It is not the transaction, but the moreish nature of that desperate race. It is a race for an elusive finish line of superficial contentment that only keeps moving further and further and will always be just out of reach. Can money buy happiness? I think it can, fleetingly. But money can’t buy purpose, acceptance and deep self-satisfaction.

Australian writer Bri Lee’s acclaimed book Beauty is a pocket-sized page-turner. I finished it a few nights back despite purchasing it over twelve months ago. She speaks to the addictive nature of “bettering” ourselves, and a “hunger for improvement” that is almost illicit in its compulsion. One dog-eared page describes that utopic feeling of stepping foot into Mecca. Bri documents the shitty-but-shiny feeling of sauntering through those gilded doors if you are naked-faced and underdressed. You are there to peruse and purchase and improve. 

“For whom did I want to be beautiful?” she says. “For Mecca itself, perhaps? To look better each time I went in, to be one of its people?”. Bri’s words prick to the touch with their precision. “We genuinely think we will be happier if we look better,” she says. In imagining and indulging the aspirational self, “we are better at work, better in our relationships, better at sex, and basically better at everything in life.”

She laments how we are so irreversibly programmed to think that the harder we work and the more money we make and the more time we spend paypassing in Mecca, the more beautiful we grow. Bri holds a mirror up to our flaws, exposing the ugliness and the tragedy of convincing ourselves that the attainment of ‘beauty’ is through commodities. It jolted me into an uneasy episode of introspection.

While, at times, it certainly feels like happiness is transactional, I think it’s important to consider where and how we distribute our spending in 2020. It can be disheartening and debilitating when your efforts to save are upended by your desperation to belong to something, to learn stuff and look a certain way. It can also lead to an overwhelming, sickly-sweet sense of guilt. After what feels like a lifetime of making flippant purchases in isolation, I’m actively trying (but still frequently failing) to put the below practices in place. If you are out for consumption retribution, feel free to take from these what you will. 

Audit your inbox

Deleting an onslaught of electronic direct marketing every morning is a reflexive routine washed down with an AM coffee for most millennials. But while archiving the majority, I find myself reeled in occasionally by a percentage discount, click-baity subject line or a sale from a luxury brand that leaves the door for purchase just slightly ajar. Next minute, I’m on the Manning Cartell website contemplating where I can wear a maxi, one-shoulder, bubblegum pink knit dress while in lockdown. The answer is nowhere. I’ve finally decluttered my inbox by unsubscribing from a few dozen mailing lists and it feels cathartic. I’ve noticed my late-night scrolling has decreased tenfold. 

Audit your Instagram following, too

It’s hard to look away from the aspirational It Girl on Instagram. You love watching their daily lives unfold via stories spliced with dovewhite sneaker unboxings and nylon Prada bags. But how many of these items have been gifted? How different is your state of reality to theirs right now? How much do you actually want these physical items versus your desire to emulate a certain lifestyle? Culling your Instagram following with a discerning eye for what accounts make you feel ‘less than’ or in a constantly hot state of envy will limit your list of wants. Think about following with intention and consideration. Stay privy to the accounts that stir something more than just longing and lust inside of you. 

Purchase with purpose

This obviously all needs to be prefaced with the disclaimer that from groceries to clothing, having choice in spending is a huge luxury and privilege. But if you’re really in the mood to spend on quality or in the market for something specific, consider the nature of where your money goes in a 2020 context. Supporting local business has never been more important. Take into account where you’re ordering from, the story of the brand you are bolstering and the narration through which that brand sells its products to you. If a brand is perpetuating archaic gender norms or homogenising beauty or monetising wellness, this transaction might not be right for you. 

Find joy in life’s other transactions 

This may sound obvious and trite, but it’s an old adage for a reason: some of the best things in life are free. Going for an hour-long walk or calling a friend or making a coffee at home or doing a deep dive into your wardrobe and revisiting pieces of clothing from a bygone era can feel more rewarding than filling your life up with more stuff. Sometimes, doing a mindful stocktake on what we possess (whether it be a nice dress or a Nespresso machine) can quiet the cravings for more. Really slowing down to relish the small things or instilling new routines (i.e. writing a few things you’re grateful for each morning, trying to run 5km, rekindling a friendship) can help the purchasing pangs dissipate. If you’re absolutely hankering for the thrill of a transaction, consider a boutique wine delivery service for a girlfriend or some flowers for a family member who’s feeling a little sombre. This will bring you a deeper, longer-lasting sense of satisfaction, something that a fleeting treat for yourself never will.

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